Day 101 – Cadoxton to Penarth

and then we were five

27th July 2013

miles completed: 1055
miles to go:  3

2013-07-27 11.22.03Clare Hooper had joined me in Penarth to walk with me today, so after a relaxed breakfast at the Premier Inn in Barry, we caught the train to Cadoxton two stops down the line.  There Fiona, Janet and Ted were waiting for us.  I hadn’t known Ted would be there and it was wonderful to see him, he had met me briefly on my first day’s walking and had come again to join me near the end.

I displayed my superior navigational skills to the assembled masses, by confidently leading us down into the subway to the next platform, but quickly corrected this to the pathway down to the road and join the coastal path.

By walking to Cadoxton the morning before I had cut out some of the road walking, but there was another mile or so through town streets and past a chemical plant.  Ted works for the company that runs the plant and explained that the towers were the tallest in, and now my memory fails me, certainly the UK, maybe Europe.  The plant is shut down at present for annual maintenance.  Ted explains that it is better to have a single scheduled maintenance period, than risk closures while in operation.

2013-07-27 11.11.07As we walk past the plant, on the one side small horses rush up in the hope that we have something to eat, but as a warning against their importunate nuzzling a sign reads:

Please
Do Not ^ horses
     feed
Anything

The kerbstones proudly announce that they are not stone, but instead, “Enviro-Kerb. The recycled composite curb drainage.”

Eventually, we reach the sea, sadly Cardiff-side of the dinosaur footprints.  Later we meet a local man, Linus, who told us that there were alternate ways through the docks which allowed you to walk more of the coats, but the port authority had resisted the Wales Coast Path leading through the docks.

As we look down the coast Sully Island, joined to the mainland at low tide, already looks close, and Steepholm, which has been visible for some days, is less indistinct although still some way off in the middle of the Bristol Channel.  As we walk, Flatholm appears, apparently between Sully Island and the mainland, although in reality much further away and further out to sea.  Both were fortified during the last war, and I’m sure there used to be day trips to Flatholm, although I never went.

2013-07-27 11.52.51We met Linus a little way along the coast at Sully, after the path had passed in front of some houses, a playing field and then some more houses, and appeared to be about to cut inland.  We knew there was a short zig-zag inland coming up, so we almost followed the road.  Happily, Linus saw us and pointed out that from the other direction the coast path arrow appeared to point to the sea.  In fact the post had been removed and reinstalled as part of some building work and the builders had put it back the wrong way round.

A short way after we got to the point where the path really did do its little zig-zag, along the edge of a small field, where the diminutive coast path roundel would have been all but invisible if not for a large sign that said, “End of the Footpath”, with an arrow pointing the way to go, just beyond which we found the ‘Captain’s Wife‘ where we stopped for lunch — indeed, the only eating place in the ten miles between Barry and Penarth.

2013-07-27 12.18.19The story is that the ‘Captain‘ who lived there kept the body of his wife in a box after she died.  Some time afterwards thieves broke in and, thinking it a treasure chest, stole the locked box.  The story ends there and we are left to imagine the distress of the Captain (although I’m sure modern counsellors would see it as a way to ‘move on’) and the shock of the burglars when they opened the box.

Just beside the Captain’s Wife is the clubhouse for Swanbridge caravan site.  When we had one of those ‘what did you do over the weekend’ sessions, one of the boys in my class  at junior school, used to talk a lot about going to their caravan (a bit of social one-up-man-ship), I thought at ‘Swanage‘ … a bit of a long drive for the weekend.  I have a feeling I had realised my mistake in the past and then forgot again, and it was only when I looked at the map in recent days that I realised it had been ‘Swanbridge‘, just a few miles from Cardiff.

While we started our lunches (they had real toad-in-the-hole), the rain started, and poured.  Everyone who had been eating and drinking outside rushed inside, and whether it was the swelling numbers, but the efficiency plummeted in Fawlty-esque fashion.  On the menu there was a coffee plus a mini-pudding option, but the coffee machine was broken.

“No problem, we wanted tea with it anyway,” we said.

But the waitress replied, “we have no hot water either.”

2013-07-27 11.43.19

We assumed this meant that they normally make tea using the hot water from the coffee machine, but felt it surely was not beyond the bounds of culinary possibility to boil water on a stove.

A little later the waitress returned to explain that the brulée torch was not working.

Happily, the puddings that were available were nice, and as we finished them there was no further excuse not to go out into the wet.  At this point Ted had to leave us to go back to his car in Cadoxton, it had been lovely to have him with us and to compare notes with his own walk round Wales, in stages, twenty years ago.

The cliff walk had to divert down a small lane and then across fields to avoid a small caravan park.  The soil from the fields, newly wetted upon a dusty, dry and cracked surface, clung damply to our boot, sandals, feet and trousers; each step made us taller until our footwear resembled 1970s platform boots, and we attempted to scrape off the clinging mud on every sharp corner of wood or stone we could find.

2013-07-27 15.36.09Back on the cliff-top path, not quite as clingy as the field mud, we found ourselves at a substantial WW2 anti-aircraft gun emplacement, the concrete bases, and old metal door and gun fixing points all that remains of a time when Luftwaffe bombs rained on the strategically essential docks.  I recall Mum told me tales of the excitement when a food boat docked raising hopes of luxuries such as bananas.

For a while a section of WW2 concrete path also helped us on our way.

We pass the ‘Marconi Holiday Village‘.  This is the site where Marconi sent the first radio message across the sea from Lavernock Point to Grassholm.  The holiday village sign was the only reminder of this historic event.  Where is the information board at least?

2013-07-27 15.54.53

Along the way is a small castellated building with an entrance, partially boarded up with broken plywood.  Inside the remnants of electrical equipment cling to the walls and two huge grey valves suggest some underground water course, maybe sewerage or maybe fresh.

And then, very soon, the first glimpses of Penarth Pier and Cardiff Bay through the trees, before we come to open parkland in front of expensive sea-view houses, the old metal cliff top railing, backed by a new post and wire fence where the cliff is clearly becoming unstable.  Here, as in so many places, the ever-shifting nature of the coast is evident.

The Pier, which dominates the view, would once have been a place for day-trips and ferries across the channel towards Weston-super-Mare.  Indeed I recall once as a child going on a trip almost all the way across, but not landing.  Maybe even then the Weston end pier was not in service, and I’m not even sure whether the trip went from Penarth, or Cardiff Docks.

2013-07-27 16.41.29Past the park-side bistro (also the place to go if you wish to pay for golf putting), we drop down the road to the Penarth prom, which has building work for new apartments, but otherwise is surprisingly like I recall it from forty years back.

However, at the pier I did have the disappointment I had been steeling myself for.  The Thayers kiosk has gone.  The girl at the current pier-end kiosk explained that Thayers had gone into administration and been swallowed up into a parent company.

So, then up into town to the rail station to have a quick cuppa and cake at Foxy’s Deli  before Clare‘s train back to Southampton and Janet being picked up by Rachel, who dropped Fiona and I at the Pier Hotel where we spend the night looking out on the typical South-Walian rain-greyed sea.

Day 100 – Barry to Cadoxton and MHA visit at Penarth

a short walk and meeting nonagenarians

26th July 2013

miles completed: 1047
miles to go:  11

The main thrust of the day was to visit the Ty Gwyn and Morel Court MHA homes in Penarth, but instead of taking the train from Barry Station, I walked the two miles to Cadoxton to make the next day slightly shorter.

2013-07-26 07.50.25The walk from Barry to Cadoxton starts along the side of the Barry west dock, which is now no longer a commercial dock, not an ‘Oil Storage Teminal’, as is still shown on the OS map, but now the site of dock side residential development.  I would not be surprised if it becomes a fully-fledged marina in due course.  From building signs there will be more development in the area between it and Barry Island, in the area that I recall as the railway engine graveyard.

2013-07-26 07.58.01Further east are commercial and industrial buildings clustered around and beyond the east dock, and my photos for the walk seem to be a mix of the abandoned quayside ironmongery, industrial views and the clock tower of, what I take to be, the massive Victorian dock offices.

Barry, like so many South Wales ports, developed in the 19th century to serve the coal and iron industries, but was created a s a sort of queue-buster.  One of the valley’s steel magnates got tired of having to wait for his ships to get into Cardiff Docks, so simply built his own at Barry.

During this stage I learn the word ‘revetment‘ from the signs that read:

Danger
No Access
Keep Off
Revetments

However, I can’t help but feeling that a warning using a word that no-one but an expert in marine engineering will recognise is somewhat less than user friendy?

2013-07-26 08.02.49After the waterfront walk, the path then goes along the new Millennium Way, a mile-long avenue, the high spots of which include the rusting railway signals, the Victorian villas on the high road overlooking the railway, and occasional glimpses, through the trees, of chimneys in the industrial area.

Although going through such areas is part of the nature of the walk, I am glad that I did it on my own and reduced the road walking for those joining me tomorrow.

2013-07-26 10.11.01I took the train from Cadoxton to Cogan Station on the edge of Penarth where I met Keith Albans, who is going to take me to the MHA homes, but not before a lovely breakfast at Elbo’s in the centre of Penarth.

We came to it by accident as it was just opposite where we found a parking space, but is a lovely place that seems to bridge the gap between ‘caf’, ‘cafe’ and coffee house.  The clientele included workmen, little old ladies and more hip (if that is not an old fashioned term) young people.

The first home we visited, Ty Gwyn, is a residential home for those with medical needs, some with strokes, others simple frailty.  It is on a wonderfully converted Victorian building and had been a private nursing home for many years until MHA bought it 10 years ago.

2013-07-26 12.26.56As well as talking with various residents, the manager told us about the way some of the residents were using computers to communicate with relatives via Skype.  One lady who was terminally ill was taken to the computer where she was able to talk to her son overseas just days before she died.  Now they also have an iPad allowing more infirm residents to communicate from their beds.

While few, if any, of the residents would use a computer freely, they can make use of specific facilities if a carer sets up the Skype call.  In some ways this is a bit like transport, you don’t have to be able to drive a bus to be able to have a day out.  Similarly, there is no reason why effective use of IT need not be mediated by another person.

As we chatted to one of the carers, she showed us the small handheld Psion device that is used to keep track of medication.  She told us how it helped reduce the risk of medication errors and also prompted when a patient’s medication was running low.  I recall first seeing the use of this kind of thing many years ago in a state of the art EU project in da Trofa Hospital in Portugal, so interesting to see this now part of normal practice.

2013-07-26 10.57.21The home has no proper garden, but they have turned a tiny yard into a beautiful ‘secret garden’, which residents have decorated with painted stones and planted with flowers and vegetables.  It was hung with bunting and had tables with parasols for garden parties.

Chatting with residents and looking at the pictures made me aware again of the need to allow those well beyond even increasing retirement ages to be active in productive ways.  Many people are failing in physical health, but have still a wealth of experience, knowledge and skills to offer.

2013-07-26 15.01.02Morel Court is a newer home. It is a residential home, but for those without any serious medical or mental needs, beyond the normal mobility problems of age.

I met one resident who had fund raised for MHA for many years, visiting one of their homes in North Wales, but with each donation she sent, she added a note saying, “why not have a home in South Wales?”  MHA obviously listened and Morel Court was the first of several MHA homes in South Wales, and the lady who collected was here for its opening and then later came here herself, now being the longest-staying resident.

We had lunch in a dining room with a large picture window looking out to the front garden and street.  In a way it was restaurant-like, but the family atmosphere made it feel more like home.  We ate at the largest table, where the residents laughed a lot, and during the visit we both heard plenty of laughter ourselves and, from the stories we were told, it seemed that there was laughter everywhere, in lifts, in the reflexology room, in the jacuzzi, and during games and activities.  One of the residents who is a Welsh speaker complained that the others thought it unfair to use Welsh words in Scrabble 🙂

The home also had a lovely garden, with a large residents’ vegetable bed and even chickens for eggs, although they needed to be put away each evening for fear of urban foxes.

I was still in deep conversation with lady telling me about her childhood in Shrewsbury, when it was time to go.

2013-07-26 15.48.09Back in Barry I wandered up to the High Street that is a lovely combination of small independent and yet contemporary shops, not frozen in time, like Kington, but not succumbing to the mall-ification of most town centres.  Maybe the closeness of Cardiff has saved the town centre from the invasion of the chains, allowing it to prosper more like the small shopping streets that are still found in areas of Cardiff, like Albany Road and Wellfield Road near where I was brought up; the sort of places you go for daily shopping needs, with occasional forays to the big city centre shops.

Day 99 – Llantwit Major to Barry

tank traps at the power station, and a fresh view of childhood haunts

25th July 2013

miles completed: 1045
miles to go:  13

This was really a day in three parts: I first walked Llantwit Major to Barry, then train back to Llantwit to pick up the van, and then walked round Barry Island.

2013-07-25 07.30.32The car park at Cwm Colhugh has a small gravelled section without a height barrier and then behind that a large field, but with a height barrier, I assume to prevent travellers camping.  My initial plan was to go down for 9am , have a breakfast at the little beach cafe there, and then start walking.  However, I woke early and thought It would be better to get on the road.  So, with a Welsh cake or two in my tummy, I parked and set off.

Just a couple of miles down the coast the ‘Seawatch Centre‘ was marked on the map so I thought there may well be something to eat there, or when the path passes Rhoose, near the airport.

2013-07-25 07.52.49The days walking was all quite easy, mostly flat cliff top, but with less spectacular views than the day before, partly because the cliffs were often lower and partly because the cliff edge was often fringed with high bushes or trees.  You could hear the pull of surf on pebble beaches below, but rarely see it.

The Seawatch Centre turned out to be a small red brick observation tower, next open on 31st July, so not useful for cups of tea.  I assume this is for spotting dolphins and the like, or maybe birds.

2013-07-25 08.21.13Even before the Seawatch Centre, the towers of Aberthaw Power Station have begun to be visible over the fields ahead, and out to sea, what I had taken to be a small island the previous day, became more clearly dome-shaped and man-made in shape, and I eventually realised must be the sea-water intake for the power station, in deep water below the low-tide mark.  The 40 foot tidal range in the Severn means there is constantly fresh water for cooling, but you cannot simply put a pipe near the shore.

The path comes to the shore by a curious round stone structure with a flat circular concrete roof, that I at first think must be a small WW2 pill box, but it has no doors and no windows, entirely sealed.  Behind are some ruinous, but relatively modern buildings, that I wonder maybe small barracks, and, amongst the shells, some lived in bungalows with plenty of ‘private’ signs.  I assume that the Coast Path officer never managed to negotiate shore-line access with these properties, so the path follows along the pebble beach for a few hundred yards until it is past them and back on fields

A bit further is the place, where, on the map, the Coast Path diverts inland as far as Gileston before rejoining the shore at the power station.  This is apparently to avoid a single small field as there is a marked public footpath the other side of the field.

2013-07-25 08.58.09  2013-07-25 09.49.05   2013-07-25 09.52.43

I had already been wondering about whether to follow the more direct route along the shoreline if possible, when I came to the sign pointing inland along one edge of a large field.   However, there was also a permissive path marked pointing forward along the field edge near the sea.  The ‘official’ coast path was completely untrodden through the tall crop of wheat, whereas the more direct path along the field edge was clearly well used.

So, the decision was easy.

At the end of the large field, the path goes temporarily onto the stone storm beach to avoid the small field that I assume did not allow access, and then back along a grassy path behind the storm beach line.  Along the beach are, what I take to be, tank traps, huge concrete blocks that look approximately cubic about four feet in all directions, but I assume may be taller and partially buried.  Every so often there is a small pill-box, although one is gradually washing out to sea.


2013-07-25 09.22.31I assume the tank traps were to prevent a sea landing in the war, as this is an area where the cliff had slopped away to nothing with a large flat farmland beyond, a perfect spot for invasion … although negotiating ships up the Bristol Channel would have been a bold move.  However, the tank traps do not seem to go all the way to the last cliff edge, starting maybe half a mile towards the power station.  Maybe there was some reason for this, perhaps the land behind was at that time inaccessible, perhaps marsh; or maybe the tank traps are there, simply buried under the pebbly storm beach.

The path from the beach to the power station is obviously well used by dog walkers but does run very close to a drainage brook that stretches out forming almost a small pond.  I’m trying to work out why the coast path does not take this route and perhaps this part gets flooded after heavy rain.

2013-07-25 09.20.25Quite close to the power station along this path, just before it rejoins the coast path proper, is a sort of long cairn with flowers and a poppy wreath on it.  It looks as if it must be a memorial to a soldier or soldiers killed, but there is no message on the flowers nor marker on the cairn to say whether this is recent or old.  It is an unlikely spot for a memorial, not in an obvious beauty spot, but a brief web trawl revealed nothing … another one to add to my unsolved mysteries of the coast.

2013-07-25 09.12.40A curved concrete fence-topped seawall protects the power station from the waves and below this the tide is almost to the top of the highest point of the storm beach.  I walk on the pebbles for a few hundred yards, realising that at spring tides or in storms, the sea would run all the way to the sea wall.  Slowly I then realise the fence is behind, not on top of the sea wall and I should be walking up there.  There are access ladders every so often, and I climb one, but realise that the way I should be taking is in fact below eye level behind the wall, so instead I walk along the top of the seawall.  It is quite a long way down to the pebbly beach, and as I turn to point at the end the sea comes right up to the wall, but the concrete is about four feet wide, so it is not particularly precipitous.


2013-07-25 10.13.58At the point, within the power station perimeter fence, is a building with a structure on its roof that I took to be radar or radio, but when I get close announces itself to be “Aberthaw Centre for Energy and Environment“.  Through its windows I can see cartoon images and also rooms with computers.  I assume it is a visitor centre for school visits to tell them about the wonders of coal power.

As well as small mountains of coal and gantries to take it to the furnaces, I can see smaller piles of logs, or to be precise whole tree trunks.  I can’t tell whether there is a separate wood-chip furnace or maybe the wood is mixed with the coal.

2013-07-25 09.43.30Beyond the main body of the power station is some sort of ash treatment plant, with an enormous car wash to clean fine ash off vehicles before they leave the area.  And beyond the ash plant, green hills, that I realise are the piles of burnt ash from more than fifty years of operation.  The area is still fenced, but the fence is now smaller and less intimidating (and none of it anything like the double fences of Wylfa) and as the path skirts between sea and ash tip there would be no way of knowing that it was not simply smooth green hillside.

Indeed, just beyond the ash tip downs is a sign:

Welcome to
Aberthaw
Biodiversity Area

2013-07-25 10.22.48There is a lake and below the cliff, which rises again nearby, the ruins of an old Victorian industrial building.  An information board explains that in the 1950s when the plant was built the shore defences created a lagoon.  Furthermore the ash tips, once they greened over, have become a unique habitat with unusual species of orchid, and now this part is specifically managed to enhance this already rich albeit unnatural habitat.

Sometimes industry despoils and destroys; I think again of the coal tip sliding on its cushion of slurry, to engulf the school at Aberfan in 1967.  However, I am also aware that many of our apparently ‘unspoilt’ and ‘natural’ environments are actually the result of human intervention both agricultural and industrial.

2013-07-25 10.28.28

Past lagoon and marsh, steps mount the cliff side and take you through a campsite perched above the sea.  It is obviously popular with fishermen and there is a special way through the cliff top fence to an area where sea anglers cast their lines from the top of the cliffs into the deep waters sixty feet below.

Beyond Aberthaw is Rhoose, which is mostly separated from the sea by old quarries.  The coast path follows the sea edge of these large but shallow quarries where there is always a narrow layer of rock left to separate them from the sea, and in some places new housing and a caravan site have been built across their flat bases.

2013-07-25 11.15.32At a break in the cliffs there is a stone circle and a modern megalith in the middle.  This is the southernmost spot of mainland Wales.  I then realise that I never noticed the extreme points to the north, west and east.  However, Wikipedia comes to the rescue with a page about ‘Extreme points of Wales‘.  Evidently it was Point of Ayr in the north, where the Dee estuary ends and the North Wales coast begins; Pen Dal-aderyn a headland west of St David’s opposite Ramsey Island, and Lady Park Wood, near Monmouth in the east.  There, and I missed them all.

2013-07-25 11.54.44Beyond the quarry floor caravan site is Bulwarks Camp, an Iron Age ring fort. The embankments are covered now in trees, but were maybe once the scene of bloody conflict, and within is a large flat area, that would have been filled with smoky huts, smelly cattle and screaming children, but now housing the landing lights for Cardiff Airport (that used to be called Rhoose Airport).

I found the post at the far side of the field confusing: it pointed to the left where a small path left the field, which I took to mean “don’t take this path, but skirt the field to the left”, but really meant “follow this path that is vaguely, albeit only slightly, turning left”.  However, I did get a closer look at the landing lights.

After this a short walk along the beach shingle below an impressive looking house and you get to Porthkerry Park, complete with golf course and, across the other side of the golf, a cafe.  It was now well after one o’clock and I’d been walking since half past seven in the hope of a breakfast, so it was very welcome indeed.  I recall Porthkerry Park being mentioned when I was a child, so must have come at some stage, but can’t recall actual visits.  Maybe the grass was less memorable than the sea?

2013-07-25 12.11.05A railway viaduct rises spectacularly over the forest near the park, but it was clear from Porthcawl, where I had no memory of the chimneys of Port Talbot that are very clearly visible over Rest Bay, that as a child my focus was very much on foreground, the here and close, it is only later that the background and the potential of distance became important.  Is that size, age or the control of mobility?

As I took the path across the field, a lady ahead was walking a dog, which ran towards me sniffing, licking and then mouthing my legs and the back of my hand.  The lady was apologetic, vainly calling off the dog.  The dog was a 16 week old Staffordshire Bull terrier and the lady said that it has started as a tiny puppy, but had grown so fast, and seemed to always be naughty on days when she didn’t feel up to it.

I just hope that she learns to control it.  While I could see it was just being affectionate, I imagine a small child feeling its teeth and being terrified even now, let alone when it grows up.

It began to rain a little, so I ordered my breakfast and intended to write while waiting for my breakfast and the rain to stop.  And then found the iPad had seized up: on the screen was a message saying I had not backed up the iPad to iCloud for seven weeks, with an ‘OK’ button, but it stayed there even when I clicked the message and blocked everything else including the System Settings, so I could not tell it not to bother backing up to iCloud!  Happily later that evening I was able to fix things by connecting the iPad to my computer, using that to tell it not to backup to iCloud, then doing a computer backup and restore … in other words a great big violent digital kick up the arse.  If I’d just been using the iPad on its own I don’t know what I could have done; once more I despair at the engineering of the systems I use.

It is then that I discover that I forgot to put the bag into the rucksack that has both the Garmin in it and the external battery for the iPhone … OK, fair cop, so I am as technology incompetent as Apple.

Happily, breakfast eating requires no technology.

2013-07-25 12.52.55The way from Porthkerry Park leads up the ‘Golden Steps‘, but I saw no gold only concrete steps, and a lot of them.  The Golden Steps lead through a small wooded area and out into a grassed area in front of relatively well to do houses (read bank manager not A-list) overlooking Barry.  At first I think the headland in front is Barry Island, but then realise it is just Cold Knap Point; Barry Island is behind and far more substantial than I recall.   Looking at the map, I see that the fun fair, that for me was Barry Island, is on fact in a small loop of road near the beach, Barry Island extends as a residential area over an area nearly a mile across, and rising quite high in the middle.

My knowledge was partly from visiting by car as a small child before my Dad died, but I had also visit as a teenager.  Yet my knowledge of even this, for me a well-known area of Wales, is so partial, basically fun fair, beach and railway station.  I’d found this also when I visited the Ramblers Cymru HQ in Cardiff back in February.  It is in Butetown and I realised that I was going down streets and indeed a whole area that I had never visited at all as a child living the opposite side of the city.  The closest I would have come was when I visited the docks with my Dad, a tiny child looking down at an enormous ship in dry dock.  The propellers emerging from the hull were particularly impressive, and I am sure I recall Dad mentioning something that I would now think of as electrolytic corrosion, although I am certain he did not use the term!

From the hilltop suburbs, the path drops down smoothly past exposed Roman remains, with no information board to explain their significance, and to a small promenade.  There are steps down, but the Coast Path follows the smoothly sloping path, I guess for the sake of heavy rucksacks in the opposite direction, but also making a rare, albeit challenging (because of the slope), wheelchair accessible section of the path.

2013-07-25 13.15.05The short prom has a shingle beach on one side and a grassy park with a paddle-boat lake on the other. My memories are mainly of Barry Island itself, but there was somewhere we occasionally went to a paddle-boat lake, maybe this was it.

The layout of the land here is interesting, a headland, Cold Knap Point, is almost an island with the triangle of land between the prom on one side and another beach facing the old harbour, on the other, is very low lying.  So I wonder whether this is entirely natural, or whether a natural semi-tidal reef was built up artificially.  However, whatever its long-term history, certainly it was already well established in the late 19th century according to Tom Clemett’s History of Knap.  This also says that as well as the boating lake there was also an open-air swimming pool, which was closed in 2003 despite a 15,000 signature petition.

2013-07-25 13.17.09As I walk along the short prom a man is taking photographs, and his wife, sitting on the bench asks how far I’d walked.  She had seen me at the cafe at Porthkerry Park, where they had been (and driven here) to take photographs of childhood haunts while visiting their son.

After going round the small headland at Cold Knap Point, I pass the Lifeguard station offering teas and coffees, but I decide I need to make time so (amazingly) resist a cup of tea and walk on pass the old Watchtower, according to Clemett’s History, an old lifeboat station.

2013-07-25 13.19.36Opposite the small Watch Tower Bay is the breakwater and old Barry harbour.   I know the port grew in the 19th Century, but the main docks are the other side of Barry Island.  I assume this western breakwater would have been for fishing and trade in earlier years, and is now merely a grave yard for a few decaying craft with just a couple of boats that appear to be in use.  As the West Dock is developed on the other side of Barry Island, I’d guess it will become a non-tidal Marina area and this, the old port, continue to decay gracefully.

I go through a small park and pass the end of the Causeway where the coast path continues around Barry Island, but at this point simply go to Barry Station for a train to Llantwit Major.  Once there it is a short walk, perhaps a mile and half or so, to the coast where the van is parked.  Having missed my breakfast there I get a burger and tea and sort out my ‘stuck’ iPad while I eat.

Then a short drive to Barry to check-in to the Premier Inn there.  I was originally trying to find a B&B on Barry Island itself, but couldn’t find any listed on the web.  However the Premier Inn, being close to Barry station, and with its own parking is probably more convenient, and is also positioned at the edge of the growing dockside residential and commercial areas, so, in a way, a taste of the Barry to come to balance my more nostalgic views of the Barry of yesteryear.

2013-07-25 17.33.54So, back in Barry I retrace my steps to where the road to the causeway goes towards Barry Island.  The railway line runs to the right (west) of the road, and the harbour of abandoned boats to the right, looking out towards Watch Tower Bay where I had been a couple of hours earlier.

Barry Island was originally only accessible at low tide and a place of pilgrimage and Celtic saints, it was only in the 19th century, with the building of Barry Docks, that the causeway was built, and then the land behind it becoming, eventually, vast sidings.  For a period in the early 20th century, Barry carried more tonnage of coal than even Cardiff, and there must have been a never ending stream of trains from the valleys.

2013-07-25 13.59.43However, what I recall, as an older child after Dad died and trips to Barry were by rail, was the graveyard of rusting steam trains that seemed itself endless, off in the sidings area between the causeway and West Dock.  Now this area is cleared and destined to be a huge Asda and, I’m sure, more waterfront apartments.

I think these trains must have been scrapped after Beeching.  On my old cloth-backed OS map of Cardiff, I guess early 1960s or maybe even 1950s, the valleys area is a spider’s web of black, railway lines to the collieries in every valley.  Still the hinterland of Cardiff is well-served compared with many area of the country, but a mere handful compared to the pre-Beeching times.  Searching to try to find out precisely when the steam trains stopped in South Wales, I found a great BBC report on the ‘golden age of steam trains in Wales‘.

2013-07-25 17.37.16The Celtic lore of the island forms a salutary reminder to be well prepared for any journey.  St Cadoc went to the island with his disciple St Baruc.  When it turned out the latter had forgotten to bring the necessary holy book, he was sent back to fetch it, but was drowned on the way back.  Happily the book was retrieved unscathed from the belly of a fish, so, from a librarian’s point of view, all’s well that ends well.

As the causeway meets the island, the coast path branches right to skirt the shoreline, getting a closer look at some of the rotting hulks, some picturesque, some, like half a glass fibre hull, less so.  I couldn’t decide whether the image of a small motorboat hull, ‘Menace II Society“, half buried in the mud was reassuring or disturbing.

2013-07-25 18.01.48Beyond the breakwater is a quiet beach, where I recall Martin, my best schooldays friend, and I played that timeless game of fighting back the tide.  Indeed I recall about a week earlier seeing a young couple sitting on the sand on another beach repairing their own sea defences against the incoming tide.  Then, beyond the beach a small limestone headland, that is as lovely as any on the coast.  I am amazed at the variety of scenery in just a small area.  My childhood Barry Island is very much the ‘Blackpool of South Wales‘, fun fair and beach, but it is so much richer than I recall or popular images suggest.

Having rounded the headland, the main beach comes into view.  As it is late by this time, the sands have only a small number of people soaking up the evening sun and even, amazingly, a squirrel, making a foray to the rocks at the cliff base to eat some crumbs missed by the seagulls.

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Of course, it is often far busier even today, and even more so in its heyday.  Looking up the history of Barry Island at WalesOnline, I found this image of 1967, the sort of time when I would have visited as a child — no wonder we often skipped the beach and went on to Rest Bay in Porthcawl.

At the top of the beach the shops and kiosks are mostly closed for the evening, but a chip shop that declares it has the best chips in Wales (don’t they all), also offers a “Man v. Food Challenge” with a double of everything burger and the promise of your money back if you can eat it in 10 minutes.  I decide my appetite is less extreme, so wander on past a toddler’s ride of giant teacups, a sign pointing the way for lost children (is this a Biblical allusion?), and Victorian shelters to the next rocky headland.

2013-07-25 18.19.14The shelters remind me of a time when the girls were little and Mum was visiting us in York.  We had driven to Scarborough and were on the prom looking at the beach and sea, when suddenly the heavens opened.  We were fine and could simply step back into a shelter and watch the beach clear, the people scattering like cockroaches in a grocer’s storeroom when the light goes on.  People dashed with beach chairs under one arm, cool boxes under the other, and children dragged after, all except one family.  While the sands cleared, they sat firm, in true British spirit, hunkering under towels and sodden newspapers, turning sunshades into dribbling umbrellas, convinced that the rain would pass and determined not to lose their hard earned spot in the sun.  They stayed there for a full three minutes and downpour turned to deluge, and dry sand to rivulets of mud, until, they too packed.  Ultimately defeated by the indefatigable British weather, in that brief time they demonstrated all that made up the Blitz spirit, all that enabled the ages of exploration and empire, and raw material that Monty Python would die for.

2013-07-25 18.37.41This headland is more ‘tamed’ with a concrete path and metal railings, but below the path the waters that have soaked past and out leave layers of white deposits on the rocks that compare with the most impressive subterranean caverns anywhere.  Not mere sheets, the deposits have an almost fibrous quality, as if damp sheep wool had been layered over the rocks, a giant felt mill.

2013-07-25 18.43.39The small bay beyond is framed on the opposite side by the breakwater protecting the entrance to Barry Docks, here seaside ends and port begins.  Above the beach on the top of the cliff above, is a terrace of Victorian, or maybe early 20th century, properties, and I recall once visiting a friend of Mum‘s in one of these and then coming down the long steps to the beach, which I recall was quite stony near the sea.  Today the sea was either higher, or the sands have changed, but it seemed sandy down to the shoreline, and higher up a group were doing some sort of exercise programme, running back and forth on the sand.

Up the steps to the road I realise I haven’t seen a Coast Path symbol for some time and in fact rejoin it on the terrace road.  The official route for some reason dos not go round the headland, but instead slowly climbs the cliffside, maybe to avoid the steps beyond.

2013-07-25 18.52.56The final part of the walk around Barry Island is all through streets, but often with cliff top allotments to the right giving views over the docks, locks and magnificent old port office overlooking the area on the mainland, I believe now the local council offices.  The line of round roofed warehouses with brightly coloured doors reminds of the banner image shown at the start of some films, I guess the badge of one of the production companies.  In the waters of the docks behind small dinghies sail and a group looks as if they are getting pre-sailing instructions.

Further down the road, a black van is parked that looks as if it has been a camper van conversion, there is something about it that looks cool, maybe the red dragon on the black van-side, maybe the squared side door against the curved side panels.  Two men were sat drinking beers in the allotments and one calls out to me.

“It’s for sale if you’re interested, eight hundred pounds he’s asking”.

“I’ve already got a camper,” I replied, “but, it is a nice van.”

“Looks like you’re having a good evening,” I say.

He holds up his beer can “every evening is a good evening”.

2013-07-25 19.04.17The houses come right to the cliffside, so the path follows side streets rund and then comes back overlooking the docks.  I see a round mural ahead, ” Together Learning and Being our Best “, it says.  It is Barry Island Primary School, ‘Ysgol Gynrad Ynys Y Barri” and at the other end of the school wall, there is another tree-like mural, where the trunk and branches are made of ceramic hand-prints.

2013-07-25 19.05.12Opposite the school there is an allotment with brightly coloured sheds and, in one raised bed, flags of many countries.  I then realise it is not an allotment, but the school garden, complete with its own garden ground sculptures.

Boy does that look a good school.

The official coast path route goes back down to the causeway.  However, there is a footpath that cuts straight down to the waterside area where the Premier Inn is and where the coast path follows along the edge of the West Dock.  I think this has probably only recently been opened up and I’m sure that eventually the formal route will change to take this way as it makes more sense, unless they want to avoid steps again.  However, I stuck with the official route for old time’s sake as it goes past the fun fair.

2013-07-25 19.14.30Not much further the road turns round and I see the fair ahead.  I recall it with a high blue wall all the way round, the rollercoaster running along the wall.  However, something happened, I think it was a fire, and the old roller coaster was destroyed.  Now there is a new roller coaster (at a very small level, we are not talking Disney World), but with simulated craggy mountains, topped with flamingos.

In fact, we never went on the roller coaster, maybe Mum and Dad thought it too scary for us … or maybe for them.  Instead, we would take the Ghost train at Barry, which had a Dalek outside it — so definitely unmissable.  However, although we did not take the Barry Roller Coaster, at Coney Beach in Porthcawl, we would go on the ride that took you up once and then down into a water splash.

I had thought at one stage of wandering round the fair (sorry ‘amusement park’), but it will be so different, I decide instead to head back to the Premier Inn, grabbing a kebab on the way.

Schedule for last few days

Yes, it is the last three days …

Friday 26th July – visit MHA sites in Penarth

Saturday 27th July – Barry/Cadoxton to Penarth

Sunday 28th July – Penarth to Cadiff Bay … FINISH!!!

On the Sunday, if you would like to join me, meet at Penarth Pier to start at 11am ready to walk across the barrage and get to Cardiff Bay by the Welsh Assembly at  1pm.

On Saturday, meet at Cadoxton station at 10:30 for morning walk or at Captain’s Wife at Sully for lunch.

Day 98 – Ogmore to Llantwit Major

late breakfast, limestone beaches, and an ancient seat of learning

24th July 2013

miles completed: 1029
miles to go:  29

I get a bus to Ogmore.  A number of friendly local people are waiting with me; while waiting for the bus and while on the bus they exchange stories of late buses, the bus company’s over-ambitious timetables meaning that even the fastest drivers are bound to be late, good drivers who stop for you even though it is not an official stop, and jobs-worth drivers who you would not even dare to ask for such a thing.

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The bus timetable at the ‘bus station’ in Llantwit Major (read bus stop outside the train station), shows routes for each bus, but instead of showing the full description of the bus stops, as they are in the copy of the printed timetable that I got at Bridgend Bus Station, simply says things like ‘Farmers Arms’, ‘Post Office’ (or to be precise ‘Post Office’ twice on the same route).  If I hadn’t had the printed timetable I would not have any idea whether there was a bus to Ogmore at all.  In addition, the timetable listed the times of the 303 on the route from Barry to Bridgend, but not the ones going in the opposite direction even though they also stopped here.  The confused visitor would stand no chance.

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However, the buses are regular, once an hour.  One of the local ladies was shocked when I told her that in other areas I had found buses two or three times a day where there were buses at all.  She was comparing the service here with that in Cardiff and thinking it was fairly poor, whereas I was comparing it with the Borders or the walkers’ buses in Pembroke.

At Ogmore I just notice in time that I have left my glasses on the bench where I was putting on sun cream.  As I took them off I thought, “I mustn’t forget these,” but did anyway.  Happily, I tried to look at the map only a few hundred yards down the road and realised they were not hanging in my T-shirt neck.

The day before I had scouted the route while driving to the campsite to check where was open for breakfasts.  The Pelican Inn at Ogmore doesn’t open until twelve and the cafe at Ogmore-by-Sea doesn’t open Mon-Wed, but I drove down to the burger van in the car park at Ogmore-by-Sea and he said he opened at 10am.

2013-07-24 10.05.33After a few hundred yards beside the road, the path from Ogmore passes the river bridge to the sewerage farm, and then runs across a ‘grassy’ path beside the river.  I write ‘grassy’ in quotes, as it would be grassy except the dry weather has left path and land around more like straw crunching beneath my feet.  However, the remaining high-tide mud flats cut in exotic curves of pools and channels is a dull algae green and white-grey seagulls and gull-coloured ducks explore alongside a canoe lazily making its way upriver with the last push of tide.

2013-07-24 10.10.52The river would not be waded without a wet suit this morning, and the sandy point across the water that I had wandered around two days before at low tide was now a thin line of shingle.  With the foot bridge only maybe half an hour upstream, it is the obvious route, but thinking back to earlier days so many of these points would have necessitated a half day wait, just as I had to wait for the tide at the stepping stones near Milford Haven.  The sea makes its own pace of life.

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On the Ogmore side, the long sandy beach is also a thin stony strip and instead of sandcastles and shouting children, a few fishermen stand silent, casting and reeling in lines.  The surf-rescue craft stands ready for those coming later, but I doubt whether the waves today will attract more than simple paddling.

But, oh dear, where is the burger van?  It is quarter past ten and there is no sign of the van.  I ask one group sitting looking at the sea, I think from a camper van, if they know what time the van usually comes, but they have only been there one day, and I get the impression that they are not frequenters of burger vans.

I wonder if this is destined to be a Snickers day, but with no Snickers, which have been melting for the last few weeks, and instead lots of peanuts, raisins and Baby Bel cheeses.

2013-07-24 10.45.01It is still quite early, but already hot.  A mountain bicycle passes, but then the cyclist dismounts as the path rises and dog walkers wander past.  At one point the path runs beside a wall, but the way is full of sheep sheltering from the morning sun.

Beyond Ogmore-by-Sea is Southerndown and I had noticed the Barn at West Farm.  I know they didn’t do breakfasts, but it is open, and so I go in and ask whether they are serving food yet.

“We’re just opening up the kitchen, would a plain bacon baguette do?”

Wonderful!

I drink seeming endless cups of tea and, with the phone propped near the window where it can find a weak signal, book the Premier Inn at Barry for my penultimate nights.

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The Barn used to be a venue for special occasions, weddings and parties, but has just started to open as a daytime café this season.  The staff there couldn’t be more friendly and the director of the Barn, Jill James, is keen to hear when I get the book of the walk written.  She seems to have her ear on the pulse of tourism in the area, and clearly is in touch with VisitWales.

My accommodation now booked for the rest of the walk, and with a solid breakfast inside me, I brave the heat again.

Not far beyond, a short walk over broad grassy cliff tops, is Dunraven Bay and Castle.  There is a kiosk here that does serve sausage rolls and pies, as well as ice cream, so the Barn is not the only place to eat on the coast, between Ogmore and Llantwit Major, but it is the only place for a proper meal.

This is also the site of the Heritage Coast Centre, set beside some idyllic thatched cottages.  It is a small exhibition, but with lots of information boards about the wildlife, geology and history of the coast and Dunraven Castle.  As well as an old castle, there had been a major house here, set on the hill overlooking the sea, with an extensive walled garden.  It was used as a hospital/convalescent home during both World Wars, but, like so many other large houses, fell into financial problems and was eventually demolished in the early 1960s.  However, the walled garden remains.

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The thirteen mile stretch of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast was designated as a special area in the 1970s with efforts since to improve access for tourists and locals, so an easy stretch to become part of the Wales Coast Path.

As well as picking up various leaflets, I also buy some small booklets about the geology of the coast, some history and a small book (aimed at children!) about pirates.  There is a young man and a woman serving, and the man says he has walked the North-South coast-to-coast path across Wales, but would love to do the full coast if he could work out how to get time off work!

2013-07-24 12.51.48The beach immediately by the Heritage Coast Centre is backed by a large car park, and, by this time, full of children and sunbathers.  It has rocks near the shore, but also large sandy stretches.  Going over the cliff and looking down into the next bay, it is almost empty, with large slabs of limestone, like giant stepping-stones across the sand.  I realise that these slabs, I guess at least ten tons in weight, will have fallen from the cliff and then been dragged, inch-by-inch, down the beach by the waves.  The idea of these enormous blocks of stone being moved by the water emphasises again the sheer power of the oceans.

Further on there are similar beaches, with tables of limestone, in shifting patterns, interspersed with sand.  As the tide is dropping it is likely that you could walk almost the entire coast at sea level, but the cliffs are high and not stable, so you would need to know what you were doing and where it is possible to get off the beach, otherwise you could easily get stuck by the sea in a sheer-cliff backed cove.

In some ways the scenery along this coast is the same, grassy flat cliff tops above sheer limestone cliffs, looking down on flat limestone beaches with sand towards the sea.

2013-07-24 14.32.27However, that does not do justice to the constantly differing patterns and flowing curves of the flat limestone sea shelves.  It is a bit like looking at the wood grain on a cupboard door or polished table.  Each square inch has its own patterning built from secret stories of summers past, long-lost branches and straining winds.  The limestone’s stories are older, each layer not a summer, but an age where creatures lived then died and fell to a tropical seabed, miniscule shell upon miniscule shell; the layers we see are tales of varying climate over hundreds of thousands of years, until the buried rock is thrown and twisted and then sliced flat by the current sea, like those buttons made by twisting and chopping coloured clays.

Some of the time, when the path cuts across the suspended cwms or valleys, it is shaded by woods for a short time, a relief from the welcome, but relentless sun.

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Every so often I spot square burnt patches, as if someone had foolishly lit a disposable barbecue on the bare grass, but often set in pairs, or larger groups close to one another, and just a little too square for a barbecue.  I wonder if they are maybe markings where the posts of future information displays are to be placed, or some other sort of surveying.

2013-07-24 13.01.32Helicopters occasionally fly overhead, a single rotor one with a radar mushroom protruding above the rotors, and a larger twin-rotor Chinook; RAF St Athens is only a few miles away. I photograph a lone walker below on the beach, and examining it afterwards, I see rucksack and flesh; I initially assumed he was wearing just small shorts, but no, stark naked, maybe the ‘naked rambler’ who keeps getting arrested?

Far out to sea there is the long sandbar running from Nash Point (not yet visible). In the sunshine the line of just visible sand and white breakers looks picturesque, but, in the days before the lighthouse was built, this would have been a deadly hazard.  The crew of a ship running aground far out to sea would have stood little chance with the combination of tide, stormy seas and, even if they made it to shore, virtually unclimbable cliffs.

2013-07-24 14.08.56Every so often a cwm, some with a cliff-top car park, gives access to the beach, and a few, more intrepid families play with kites and splash alone by the sea.  Above one is what appears to be a curved topped Celtic church, but turns out to be a small concrete roofed shed, a thistle nestling in a crack between the lichen spotted slabs.  At the same cwm, the small stream runs down across a wide lichen-green slab, falling off in tiny yard-high waterfalls at odd places.  But after heavy rain the whole slab must become a sheet of water, like a miniature Victoria Falls, spreading its waters wide.

2013-07-24 14.17.38I meet a couple Vic and Cheri.   Vic is a seasoned walker and member of Tiger Bay Ramblers, but it is Cheri‘s first walk.   We chat briefly about the coast, Vic has done parts of the Coast Path as well as regular walking elsewhere.  We talk a bit about the importance for new walkers of clear signage, and good paths so that those, like Cheri, who dip their toes into walking, are not put off.  Of course, for Cheri‘s first walk, Vic has chosen a stretch that is both beautiful and also suitable for her.  I worry most about those who are reliant on signs, or maybe leaflets downloaded from the Wales Coast Path web site.  It is crucial, both for safety and future walking, that they are clear for those who are not expert map-readers.

Every so often I get a glimpse of South Nash Lighthouse.  It is sited at the landward end of the treacherous sandbar stretching out to sea.  The navigator knows to avoid the line going ESE from it.  Normally a lighthouse is there to warn or inform about the land itself, so is positioned precisely at the tip of a promontory, but as the South Nash point is for the sandbar it is very slightly round to the eastward side of the point: if you are so close to the land that you cannot see it, then you are already lost!

Of course for the coast walker, this means that it is only visible glimpsed over the top of the headland itself.

2013-07-24 15.00.37Gradually it becomes closer, and the glimpses are more frequent, before finally the car park and small kiosk at Nash Point come into view.  The people at the kiosk sell car park tickets, but also serve tea, coffee, ice creams, cakes and I think some sandwiches as well.

I take a hot tea (because it is the Nectar of Welsh life), and a cold shandy (because it is a vey hot day), as well as a Welsh cake (Ambrosia to tea’s Nectar).  The people serving there are very friendly and I sit at one of the tables and chairs most in the shade.  I think there is some sort of fee to visit the lighthouse itself, which, if I recall, was one of the last to be swopped to be automatic, I guess because a shore lighthouse is not as expensive to man as an offshore one.

An American family are buying drinks.  The man selling the car parking tickets is telling them the way to go for a walk, but is having a hard time explaining that they are allowed to walk through the lighthouse grounds without paying as it is a public footpath.  I think the idea of a public right of way through private land is very alien to the American mind.

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Of course the feudal centrality of ownership of land was itself a European import, and probably nowhere more developed than in England and Wales after the Norman Conquest, when it was William‘s almost Thatcherite policy of giving land to his lords that enabled him to conquer the nations without having to invade it all himself, a sort of public-private partnership in subjugation.

I recall also being told by someone who had lived through the unification process in eastern Germany, that in the communist days it was possible to walk anywhere and that all the children in the school had an annual race around the lake.  After unification the idea of so much public land was either anathema to the German Government, or simply too lucrative to miss, and now the land is all privately owned with fences everywhere and the school lake race is no more as lakefront properties extend to the water’s edge.

2013-07-24 14.51.10Paradoxically these deeply feudal ideas of private ownership became a central part of the newly ‘democratic’ American mindset.  In “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee“, making sure that each native North American Indian owned a (small) patch of land was a key aspect of ‘civilising’ them as well as meaning that the rest of the, already shrunken, Indian lands could be taken by white settlers.

Eventually, the ticket selling man was able to overcome 200 years of conditioning and culture and convince the American lady that it was OK to walk out along the cliff paths.

Then someone from the next table said, “hello”.  It was Cheri.  I’d sort of noticed that I recognised her, but with so many new faces, they are all becoming a blur, although given we’d talked just half an hour or an hour earlier, I was a little embarrassed.  Also I think that when I meet people going in the opposite direction I sort of assume I will not meet them again, but have forgotten about circular or there-and-back walks and cars. She and Vic are having a quick drink at the kiosk before driving home.  Most important, she has had a good day’s walking.

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There are two lighthouses, a shorter older one that is the one you can visit, and a taller newer one.  Between the two is a building, standing on its own, with two enormous foghorns on its flat roof.  The gate does have some sort of ‘no entry’ sign as well as the footpath sign, although I think aimed more at cars, so maybe it was this that had put off the American lady.  On the side of the stubby old light is a Trinity House crest, “Trinitas in Unitate”, and on the window of the foghorn house, a sign appealing for volunteers to be tour guides.  The vast machinery of air movement inside for foghorn house makes it seem that, almost like the bag of winds that Odysseus was given by Aeolus, this contraption makes the north east winds, blowing ships out to sea, away from the sandbar and out into the west.

2013-07-24 16.05.12Beyond the new lighthouse are stepping stones through the grass to a stone stile – maybe it gets boggy in winter – and the beach beyond that is even more sculptured, its flat rock cut and cut again by fissures in the base rock itself, and fault lines.  Here it is not the layers we are seeing, maybe the strata here are so level they are parallel to the sea, but structure within a single layer of limestone, though I cannot tell which is maybe some structure trapped in time from the laying down of these rocks, and which, like the fault lines, are more about the pressures and movements they have experienced since.

2013-07-24 16.23.14A little further on is St Donats, which consists of a little village well back from the sea and a large school, Atlantic College, which I heard about a lot as a child, but have only a hazy idea of what it is.  I think it is simply a private school, but with a mission to unite people from different nations and with an emphasis on outdoor education.  It has been using the International Baccalaureate for at least 40 years before recent governments started to think about baccalaureates.

From the coast all you see of either is a castellated wall at the end of a cwm with a slipway, I assume for sailing, but also for the College‘s own lifeboat.  Looking at the map, it looks like the walled area, which includes (peeking over the wall from the hill!) a swimming pool, is an old cavalry barracks, I assume to keep the troublesome Glamorgan folk in check as much as defend the coasts from the French.

2013-07-24 16.46.47After this, it is only a short step, past another cwm fronted by a small lawned private garden and flanked by war-time pill boxes, almost blending into the beach rocks, to Llantwit Major, or to be precise Cwm Col-huw, as Llantwit Major is set back about a mile from the coast.

Cwm Col-huw beach is a classic pebble bar at the end of the Afon Col-Huw valley, but, unlike many of the valleys that flow to the sea, it is deep and wide going back deep into the countryside, and only slowly rising.  It has a substantial car park, lifeguard station and a beach cafe selling meals (including full breakfasts from 9am) as well as ice cream.  The car park has a small gravelled area with no height barrier and a larger field with a car-sized height barrier.  So, if you have a campervan, you need to get there early or maybe even the night before; the gravelled car park is both free and seems to have no ‘sleeping overnight’ restrictions.

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Llantwit Major, or in Welsh Llanilltud Mawr (the large parish/place of St Illtud), is an old settlement and once the most important ecclesiastical centre in WalesSt David studied here before heading off to found his own church and monastery in Pembroke.

So far, driving to the campsite and walking to the bus stop at the station, I had seen little of age, the oldest things being 1920s local authority and private housing estates, and on the map there are virtually no antiquity signs, so I assume it has been continuously populated and therefore the signs of earlier settlement destroyed or buried.  However, coming up the mile long walk through Cwm Col-huw, you come to the old part of the village with cottages that date back at least hundreds of years if not to the Celtic origins.

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Day 97 – interview at Llansteffan

salubrious places, shifting sands and broken bodies

23rd July 2013

In the guesthouse, before I leave, I pick up the information pack to find the check-out time. At the back of the information pack there is a brief history of the White House built during the growth of Swansea in the 19th century. At that time Swansea was such a big port, founded on metal working in the valleys above, that there were 25 foreign consulates here. I also learn that the Swansea and Mumbles Railway was the first passenger-carrying railway in the world. I feel I should have known that already, on my doorstep. I did read on a Mumbles information board that it was the building of the railway that enabled the then village of Oyster Mouth to grow as a dormitory town for those working in Swansea, but, I guess, wanting more salubrious surroundings.

This reminds me that as you drive through Swansea there is a modern brick building, with a sort of dome-shaped front, that has the words ‘Salubrious Place‘ emblazoned high on its frontage. I assume that while the building looks modern the name is Victorian.

The hotel has an almost boutique feel to it with lovely furniture and decoration in the front room, and attention to detail throughout, but without the four posters, chintz and snowdrift-like piles of sequinned cushions of the true boutique hotel! As I check out, Stephen, one of the proprietors, tells me that indeed he had run a boutique hotel in Turkey for many years before coming here two years ago, but here he wanted to create a more homely atmosphere.

I drive from Swansea to Llantwit Major, but knowing that I will drive back the same way as soon as I have checked into the campsite there. Earlier in the morning I had had a phone call from the London office of Ramblers about an interview with journalists at LlansteffanAndrew had mentioned this the night before, and they rang to confirm. Llansteffan is back the other side of Carmarthen, but I have plenty of time over the next few days, so decide to make this another no-walk day, although a lot of driving.

On the way to Llantwit Major, I drive the coast way to scout out breakfast possibilities for the next day. The Pelican Inn at Ogmore (‘food served all day’) does not open until 12 (‘all day’ suitably defined); at Ogmore-by-Sea, where the car park had been packed and the beach full of bathers on Sunday, the only café is closed Monday to Wednesday, and there is just a beach-side burger van that opens at 10; even further down the road at Southern Down the roadside inn does not open until 11am. So, it will be a burger-van breakfast, probably eaten on the hoof.

Acorn Campsite is a little hidden behind a small estate of chalets, but I find it with direction from a man with an Atlantic College t-shirt. The campsite is well laid out and has one of the best toilet and shower blocks I have seen. Each shower area is like two rooms, one with the shower and one with a sink and one of those white patio armchairs, and I took a peek in the disabled shower room, which is cavernous. A man is washing dishes and tells me that the current owners had been long-term campers themselves, knew how important the shower block is, and so designed the shower block first and then fitted the rest of the site around it.

I got out my electric cable and filled with water, to make the evening set up easier, then set back off through Carmarthen to Llansteffan, an odd feeling as I am ‘going back’ a couple of weeks as I drive; space and time have become so intertwined.

While waiting in Llansteffan car park, a black people carrier with darkened windows pulls in. Out of it step a family of orthodox Jews, dressed, with the exception of the three girls’ identical pink cardigans, in black, including the little girls’ black stockinged feet in the sand. I wonder how they can manage the heat, this is not the loose layered black women’s clothing you see in some countries, but jackets, trousers, skirts and waistcoats. Mind you, Goths do the same and maybe for less reason.

As I’d arrived quite early, I sit in the van reading and writing for an hour or so, peeking out of the window every time I notice a car arrives, until I see a man get out of a car with a rucksack and small briefcase. As I look more carefully I see he has a Ramblers t-shirt. I go over and we greet each other. It turns out he is Benedict Southworth the CEO of Ramblers. Although the job involves the normal round of deskwork, he also spends a considerable amount of time meeting people in beautiful places like this and getting involved in initiatives such as schemes for ‘problem’ youngsters.

He tells me about one project where teenagers who were not getting on at school and regularly truanting spent substantial periods of time in the outdoors, progressing from simple walks to full mountain expeditions. Although this took them away from school as much as their truanting, still their grades at school showed dramatic improvements.

The journalists are also interviewing a lady, Eiluned Rees, who used to work at the National Library in Aberystwyth, and retired to Llansteffan some years ago. I listen avidly to the things she is saying to the journalists and chat to her while they are busy with other things. She has such an amazing knowledge. She tells us about the miners who would come down by train from the valleys and cross on the ferry to Llansteffan for their summer holidays; before that the pilgrimage route ran through here in Norman times, and further back still there was Stone Age, I think it was Mesolithic, occupation.

We also talk about the little shack community at Ferry Point. She said it started as tents for some taking more substantial summer holidays, and gradually some of the tents became makeshift corrugated iron structures, which developed in complexity and began to be occupied more continuously, until the local landowner realised he could charge rent and the community became, in a sense, normalised. At one point there was an old bus there. I had noticed, when I walked through, that there were some very ‘developed’ properties, although still made of modern steel section. She knows one person who has had one of the shacks there for many years, and feels it is becoming too upmarket.

Evidently the area of land there used to be much more extensive, with several farms and a small borough of its own, but gradually the shifting path of the river eroded the land away, so that the many farms became one, houses were lost to the water, and so, by the time of the campers, there was little more than the strip of land between hillside and sea that there is today.

While we wander round the headland looking for good places for photographs and talk, across the bay smoke rises and at first we think the helicopter is putting out a bush fire, until, above the distant chatter of helicopter rotors, we hear a louder rattle and realise this is a live firing exercise at the firing ranges near Kidwelly.

It has been a lovely evening, meeting Benedict, the journalists and people from Llansteffan, but a long one, and it is nearly nine by the time we finish, with an hour or so drive back to Llantwit Major still ahead of me – I am very glad I’d sorted out the campsite earlier!

I need to stop in Bridgend to get food and had been told that there were several 24-hour supermarkets here. Roadworks make the road system in the centre of Bridgend more complex and I know that both supermarkets and also fast-food places tend to be near the edge of the centre, but not at the very centre of a town. A semi-random skirting of the town takes me down a two-way street that is temporarily one way due to traffic works, with fast-food shops lining one side and cars parked on the double yellow lines. For some reason my law-abiding gene forces me to a car park and I have to walk back past the lines of yellow-line-parked cars to a kebab shop that also tells me where to find a Spar for milk.

Walking back down the fast-food street I also notice it is the home of multiple money shops of various kinds. At a time when interest rates are so low, still, if you are poor or vulnerable, then you end up, even at the legal end of the market, paying the equivalent of several thousand per cent APR in pay-day loans or those sell and buy back later stores. It was heartening to see, a few days later, that the Archbishop of Canterbury is trying to get Anglican churches to set up credit unions; it is sad that it is necessary, but a promising initiative.

Amongst the fast-food and money shops, there is ‘DASH‘ the ‘Drugs and Alcohol Self Help’ group, a church youth centre and the Bridgend food bank. I think also about the food bank at Bangor Cathedral, and the cross-church project I know about in Halifax organised initially by the St Augustine Centre. It is heartening to see these initiatives, the way people give so generously of their time, but they are also shocking in their prevalence.

Although there will have always been food needed at centres for homeless people, and various last resort charities, the common need for food handouts is not something I have seen in my lifetime until the last few years. It is as if we are unravelling fifty, maybe one hundred years of social development.

It is easy to say "it is just the recession, it is hitting everyone", but this is not the case, the high-end ‘executive’ housing is still clearly being built, house prices down the west of Wales have hardly fallen in the areas favoured by second home buyers, and, while the car industry has slumped, luxury cars have never had such huge sales. We are creating a brave new world that is not only unjust, but ultimately unstable.

I am reminded of the opening scenes of ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘ where the French aristocrat‘s carriage runs over a young child, but the occupant is worried only at the delay in squeezing past the inconvenient morass of poverty. Although the bloody bodies are not there literally, still with childhood rickets and scurvy on the rise, we are already seeing children’s health sent back to a time before the Second World War, young bodies are being broken and young hearts wrung dry daily, permanently and directly by current public policy.

Update – Newsnight

The mysterious ‘journalists’ above were Rajesh Mirchandani (@rajeshmirchand), Alex Milner (@GkOlive) and a cameraman, whose name I’ve forgotten (sorry!), who were filming for a Newsnight report about the English Coast Path, the progress of which is being set back by funding cuts. They were looking at the Wales Coast Path to see how important it is to have a complete coast path rather than simply focus energy on a few selected places.

The Newsnight report was aired on 5th August. The report is available on iPlayer starting at 26:40 (as long as the BBC keep it available), but only includes a glimpse of me walking … the interview with me hit the cutting room floor as did much else, hours of filming for a few minutes on screen.

I was fascinated by the whole process; they need to make sure they have anything they could possibly need, from images of our feet walking to out of focus shots of flowers, as they cannot come back for more once they are in the cutting room. Digital filming has advantages as they can take more than they would have once done using analog film or tape, effectively leaving many editorial decisions until later, but it has disadvantages. On the way back, Rajesh bent down and picked up a bright yellow envelope, it was one of the storage cards that had slipped out of Alex‘s pocket – you could never drop a carton of celluloid like that!

Day 96 – talk at Swansea

talking about walking, Welsh cakes and the future of energy

22nd July 2013

No walking, just talking this day as I re-visited Swansea University to give a talk at FIT Lab where I had given my first talk about the walk, back last November, while it was still a twinkle in my eye.

The day started by driving from Porthcawl to the White House in Swansea where I was staying after the talk. It is on Nyanza Terrace, which is the last few houses on Brynmoor Road. The instructions on the web site are very clear, but I was using the postcode and address that I’d been mailed by Parisa, and Google Maps does not understand streets with more than one name, I guess it never happens in California! However, with a quick phone call and a little help from the White House staff I got parked.

I was due to have a Skype meeting at 10:30 to join Adrian Friday in Lancaster who was being interviewed for a proposed ‘Sprint‘ (mini-project) of Catalyst, a 1.9M research project looking at citizen-led innovation.  Adrian is leading a proposal, ‘On Supply‘ to look at issues around smart energy on Tiree. I was too late to go into the university to do this, so instead sat with a cup of tea in the sumptuous White House sitting room.

After the interview I went in to meet Parisa for lunch and on the way met Harold and Abigail who steered me in the right direction.

The larger reflections on the walk are still ‘in progress’, so for the talk itself I used the first few slides that I’d used previously for pre-walk talks, to give context, and then ‘winged’ it, talking through a series of issues that seemed to be emerging and illustrating it with the contents of my rucksack rather than PowerPoint slides.

I wish I had recorded the Q&A session at the end as there were various useful comments and discussions. I do recall that Matt Jones was worried that in my post-walk annotating and threading of the narratives in my blog, I might lose some of the richness of the full narrative. However, my plan is to try to do this in a way that makes it easy to track, for example, issues around community shops, or energy, but to still see these in the narrative context of the raw text.

It was great to see, in addition to the FIT folk, both old faces (as in from my previous visit!) such as Andrew Morgan and John Ashley (Ashley’s Walks), and also new including Kate Evans from the Geography Dept.

After the talk we had tea and Welsh cakes1.  If you have never had a Welsh cake, think of them a bit like a cross between a scone and a Scotch pancake. They are more cake-ish than a pancake and have dried vine fruit in the mix, but are cooked on a hot griddle. For me, all Welsh cakes have an uphill struggle as they can never match my Mum‘s Welsh cakes, which were the best ever. She had a real, round, thick, black, cast-iron bakestone, and I think made the mixture with more fat than is common.  Certainly, while most Welsh cakes have a dryish centre like a scone, Mum‘s were moist, with a hint of the texture and flavour of the uncooked mixture you scrape from the bowl on your fingertip, but with a well-browned top and bottom from the baking-hot stone.

However, with this high standard to measure against the Swansea University Welsh cakes were good and there were plenty left over at the end and so I was told to take some. I was reluctant, as I knew I wouldn’t get through them quickly and I thought they would go stale, but they would be thrown out when the room was cleared so I took more than a dozen with me. Amazingly they kept fresh throughout the week. On the following Saturday, six days later, Clare took the last few to eat on the train back to Southampton (saving one to share with her partner when she got there), and they were still fresh tasting.

When I got back to the White House after dinner there was a message from Adrian: out of three shortlisted Catalyst Sprint projects, all very strong, On Supply had been selected, a lovely end to the day and a promise of a great project working with folk from Lancaster, Tiree and elsewhere on the future of energy use.

  1. There is a recipe for Welsh Cakes on the BBC Good Food web site, but they sprinkle sugar on them after. This is a common practice, but one I do not hold with, as bad as putting icing on Chelsea buns.[back]

Day 95 – Porthcawl to Ogmore

beaches and BMI, a dolls-house lighthouse and the highest dune, melting gelato and treading on ghosts, fish and chips by the fun fair

21st July 2013

miles completed: 1018
miles to go:  40

I was intending for this to be a purely writing and rest day, but I realise it will make Tuesday easier if I can walk as far as Ogmore, just seven miles away, and so cross the river into the bus routes that run to and from Llantwit Major. When the morning began bright, but with light clouds to cool the intense sun of recent days, the final decision became easy. There is something satisfying about starting from where you slept the night before, rather than having to drive or take a bus to the start. If budget were unlimited, I think I would do this all the way.

I walk the short stretch of promenade from the B&B to the breakwater and small lighthouse beyond. There are two lights, one older light, and one very small one, almost a dolls-house of a lighthouse, at the end of the equally small breakwater. A set of old crooked steps lead out of the water opposite the breakwater and a two-masted sailboat (I don’t know the technical name) passes the end of the breakwater. Towards the land a large crane is at work making a new 70-berth marina with an enormous hydraulic lock gate.

At the end of the breakwater, in the narrow gap around the miniature lighthouse, I start to chat to a man with a Siberian Husky, admiring its two tone coat. We exchange dog stories: I tell him about the dog in the stairwell at Birmingham that I took to be a husky, but turned out to be a tame wolf; he tells me about the ‘living with wolves’ man who has a pack in Devon, and I tell him about the wolf valley on Offa’s Dyke.

I only make it halfway back down the tiny breakwater before a couple, Arwyn and Sally, ask about the walk. They had spotted me earlier as I crossed on the ‘tarmac beach’ and they were at the beach café. The ‘tarmac beach’ is s small area of concrete (maybe it was once tarmac) so that those who don’t want to brave the broken rocks or walk the half mile to Rest Bay or Sandy Bay sands can still sit and soak up sun. They had seen me pass and tried to make out what was written on my rucksack with binoculars, thinking initially that maybe I was something to do with the passing sailboat.

They had walked parts of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and South West Coast Path, and Arwyn is tentatively thinking of doing a more major walk, or maybe kayaking the coast, when he retires. Sally says she would be support driver so long as she doesn’t have to walk it herself.

Years ago they had run a pub, the ‘Dirty Duck‘ (honestly) over the far side of Coney Bay. They also tell me that there had been a municipal caravan and camping site near Coney Island, which used to turn a quarter of a million pounds profit each year. However, as part of a seafront ‘regeneration’ plan, it had been closed, meaning there is no nearby site for tourers. Campervans then migrated to the prom, prompting the council to create parking restrictions. I had to park the campervan round the corner in a residential street as the prom has a ‘no overnight parking’ rule for campervans and caravans, I guess easier to police than a ‘no overnight sleeping’ rule.

Arwyn said that the council had thought to create spaces at Rest Bay, but the affluent residents near there had objected, although now there is a very small private one near Coney Beach, too small or too new to appear on internet searches.

There has been a land train running all the way from Coney Beach to Rest Bay, although it is not running at present due, according to notices, to ‘contractual difficulties’. Evidently, the driver was asked to work sunny days only, a bit like McDonald’s getting employees to clock in and out as customers come in. However, they also said that before it there was a small train on rails that simply ran the couple of hundred yards down the prom from the car park to the dock where the high street runs down to the sea front. This will be the train I recall from childhood, we rode it occasionally, but more often just parked at Coney Beach, the fun fair, and then later drove on to Rest Bay, or, when Mum and Dad were deaf to our fun fair pleadings, just to Rest Bay. At Coney Beach, we would just go on the water slide, like a one-step rollercoaster, taking you up and then once down into a water splash.

Coney Beach is the next stop, but the water slide has long gone, and the rides have not yet started, so all is still except the ice cream and hot dog stands. I am still full from breakfast, but do take a Sidoli’s Italian ice cream to get into fairground spirit. I forget that Italian ice cream always melts faster than you can eat it, and have to use up half a bottle of water washing the stickiness from my hands

The beach is busy, but still with plenty of room, no one is crowded and lifeguards keep watch from land and water. The lifeguard station is on a small rocky outcrop with another small lighthouse at its end. The next bay is backed by Tresco Bay caravan park, evidently the biggest one in Europe. I note that it does make a point of saying, on big banners, that its facilities are open to non-residents. So a Wales Coast Path-er can take a break at crazy golf while passing Porthcawl, even if they are not welcome at the visitor centre at Wylfa on Anglesey. I cannot see why more holiday villages and campsites do not realise that passing walkers and cyclists are a business opportunity rather than a nuisance to be sent skirting round the inland edges or at best hurried on.

If I recall there used to be a large Butlins here or a similar holiday camp and it is that site that has been converted into the current caravan park. I recall one holiday at a Butlins when I was small, I think maybe Minehead. I remember that the swimming pool had a glass side by the cafeteria so that you could watch the swimmers; the science-fiction-like monorail to the beach; the gnats amongst the bushes on the walk back; the night Mum and Dad went to the ‘entertainment’ while Jackie and I were left alone in the chalet with the camp babysitting service keeping an occasional eye; and another day playing on the grass while they went to watch the wrestling.  Leaving children alone – never nowadays! However, the only danger was not when we were ‘holiday alone’, but at the beach, which had pebbly storm shelves. I evidently was wearing a straw hat and paddling, and then the next thing Mum and Dad knew there was just a hat bobbing in the water, I had stepped over the underwater edge of one of the storm shelves. Dad plucked me out, none the worse for my ducking, but I assume somewhat shaken as I have no recollection whatsoever.

Looking at these last two beaches, I wonder whether anyone has ever compared demographic statistics between beaches: age, social class, and, not least, BMIPorthcawl and Aberavon would definitely weigh in on the last measure compared to the beaches near Swansea and Gower, although I would guess it correlates strongly with the second metric. Even within Porthcawl, there would be a definite BMI trend between Rest Bay and Coney Beach.

Beyond this there is another small rocky headland, Newton Point, and after that a the short prom of Newton, with a lovely looking beach and a shop partway down. I see that a family have a tray with tea cups on the prom wall opposite the shop – the real seaside tea experience still exists.

And from there the beach stretches uninterrupted towards Ogmore-by-Sea, with just the diminutive Ogwr between; the river that cuts the deep Ogmore Valley in the mountains inland, hardy more than a wide brook, maybe its waters have been sucked out to provide for Bridgend and industry, or maybe they leach down into the limestone below.

Approaching the Ogwr River the beach becomes more busy, but by this I mean handfuls of people, not crowds. Across the river at Ogmore-by-Sea it is more busy still, and the car park there is clearly full, but again we are not talking Blackpool. The feel is very different here, with some people wild camping, cooking fish over driftwood bonfires … I say ‘fish’ because I could smell cooking fish, and one of the barbecue fires was flanked by an angler’s rods.

It would be possible to cross the Ogwr here, either ankle deep near the sea, or thigh deep at the high-tide mark, but as I have few miles to go, I do not take the shortcut, but instead walk upriver to the footbridge, a mile or two upstream.

For the first half mile, the path follows the riverside, looking across to a green flood plain with the occasional tent, probably not the best place to camp when it rains. The river itself is wide with grey mud banks liberally dotted with algae-swathed tree trunks, car tyres and a few shopping trolleys. The latter must have washed down stream, but I struggle to work out how so many car tyres have been washed down.

Some of the time I walk on firm pebbly sand at the water’s edge, sometimes cross a meander on green channel-fissured salt marsh, although the latter are not ‘official’ route as this hugs the high water mark. Taking the low-tide line, you do have to keep a sharp lookout for where the path cuts inland across the dunes.

According to the information board, this is the highest dune system in Wales, with sand piled on top of limestone giving a unique ecosystem. By ‘highest’, I assume it means greatest depth of sand as the clifftop dunes in the Gower must surely be higher in altitude. The dune system once ran continuously from here to Mumbles including Kenfig Burrows and the dunes behind Morfa Beach, but over the years it has been fragmented with residential and industrial development, and, if Tata have their way, open-cast mining.

The sand is hot underfoot, seeping into my sandals, between my toes and under the soles of my feet. Evidently parts of ‘Lawrence of Arabia‘ were filmed here; I can feel as well as see why. I am glad when, for a short distance, a parallel path runs in the shade of a small line of trees, although after following it for a while, I realise it is in fact a dry stream bed.

I recall Merthyr Mawr from when I was little and we would come here, sometimes on the way to Porthcawl. We would park, and then play in the sand, I would guess safer than by the sea and certainly quieter; we were always on our own there. I recall once climbing to the top of the dune at the base of which we were picnicking. I looked and beyond this dune there was another. I recall feeling a fresh sense of scale, realising that the world is far bigger than it seems. I think Dad said that there was treasure out there somewhere. I never found treasure, but once lost one of those moulds for making sand patties with. There were tears at the time, and, with a wry smile at my own fancy, I imagine that maybe, as I walk today, I will see a corner of bright coloured plastic peeking from the sand.

I found no sand toys, but did get to the car park, somewhat bigger nowadays and with, not marked on any map I have, a public toilet. Beyond this the path follows the access road, a quiet country lane, leading only to this car park and a few houses. For the first quarter mile, it is through woodland, refreshingly cool after the heat of the sand. On one side the plants are drooping, and I realise many are Himalayan Balsam (or maybe Japanese Knotweed, I always struggle to tell the difference), including some that have seeded into old decaying tree trunks, and the area must have been sprayed with herbicide to try to stop their spread.

At the far end of the small road is the village of Merthyr Mawr itself. The dune system is strictly Merthyr-mawr Warren. To confuse me more, on the Wales Coast Path mileage chart there is an entry for ‘Candlestone‘, which I coudn’t locate, but looking again, I now see that, at the car park, there is an antiquity marked ‘Candlestone Castle‘, so the mileage point is presumably the car park.

Merthyr Mawr village is Miss Marple land, thatched cottages and a country church with a small, but a very unusual bell tower, that stands pert, half offset from the gable end of the wall, like the tail of a little Scotty dog about to wag.

The footbridge across the Ogwr is here, and as I cross the river is full of teenagers on some sort of field trip, one up to his chest holding a flow meter in the water, others with tiny fishing nets, others with clipboards recording finds. It is a Sunday, but maybe nowadays, with overfull timetables and ministerially imposed curricula, the only way you can do field trips is at weekends.

The ruins of Ogmore Castle would dominate the view down the valley, except that also, in the flat fields by the riverside, stand two tepees making it look as if we have ventured into a Hollywood time-slip film set: ‘Sitting Bull at Camelot’.

So, across another field and another footbridge over a tributary, the Ewenni, then a few hundred yards along a surprisingly busy road takes you to the Pelican Inn, which looks like it has a good lunch menu, but where I only have time for a quick pint while waiting for the bus back to Porthcawl via Bridgend.

Weirdly, the road has a cattle grid near the footbridge. One side of the cattle grid is a large gate for horses and cattle, on the other side is a small pedestrian gate, so I crossed to use the latter only to find it had been wired shut.

I recall visiting Bridgend once to see my aunt and uncle. Gerald was an Anglican priest at Bridgend and Avril had had health problems, I think related to diabetes. I recall these things, but whether from the time or afterwards, I cannot tell, but I have no memories at all of the visit itself, or of my cousins Nicholas and Shauna on that visit, although I do from later Christmas parties. In fact, my only recollection is that the car broke down, but luckily not long after we had passed an AA box, so Dad had to walk back to ring the AA roadside rescue. This was still in the days when AA motorbike patrols would scour the roadways for members in distress, and I think still salute when they saw the AA badge on your radiator grill.

This visit was no more memorable, a move from stand 1 to stand 5 in the bus station.

At Porthcawl, I go straight to Rest Bay, to sit for a while in the beach café. This was not there in my childhood, and is a classic surf-style café, where even the tables are made surf-board shaped, as if the café is ready for the next big wave that will inundate Porthcawl. It would be good to visit in winter as they have a wood stove (not lit this day!) and I can imagine sipping hot tea and watching the crashing surfer-tipped waves from the warmth of the café.

I have not had any lunch, so with my cup of tea I also order a cheese and ham tortilla toastie, as it sounded an interesting variant on the classic toastie. I sit with laptop on my knee, and whether it was the stuffy heat, having just eaten, or the beer at Ogmore, but I write very little before I find myself nodding off over the keyboard. I do not know whether I snored before I woke.

Walking back, the beach is beginning to empty as it is after five, but still the water and grass are dense with bodies. I have an odd sense, it is like nostalgia, but it is not exactly that, more like walking over my own ghost. Throughout this trip I have been a voyeur, looking in on others’ lives, and now it is my own that is under scrutiny.

Back to Foam Edge, and I do manage to write for a few hours, by which time it is eight o’clock and virtually everywhere has either stopped serving food or doesn’t serve food at all on Sundays. At the Porthcawl Hotel, the boards outside suggest they have some good deals (burger and beer for £4.95), but finish food at 4pm on Sunday. However, they are able to direct me to Beales, they tell me voted the number one chip shop in … I can’t remember … it may have been Wales, Britain or simply Porthcawl.

On the way I pass Sidoli’s own café, with the name in tiles beside the door and a stone Madonna set into the brickwork.

Beales is certainly popular, the queue stretches out into the street. In front of me a young girl tries to kiss her little brother in his mother’s arms, but the little boy wants none of it and wipes each kiss away as fast as they are given. A poor woman driving a large estate car, I think maybe feeling hassled by the police car waiting to pass, drives forwards into a small space and with no amount of driving back and forth can get closer than a yard from the kerb. I miss the end of the saga, as it is my turn to be served, so don’t know whether she gave up and drove away, left the car slightly erratically parked and continued with her business, or maybe is still there manoeuvring back and forth for ever like Sisyphus in Hades.

I am just beyond Coney Beach, so head there. The fun fair, or I think formally something like ‘entertainment complex’, ‘amusement park’, is open and the rides are lit, but there are few people riding roundabout horses, or throwing hoopla over teddy bears.

Down on the beach, I sit on a set of huge steps marked ‘private, keep off’, with a small shipping container and closed kiosk behind me, maybe deckchair hire in peak season, and eat my fish and chips. In front of me a few last beach wanderers, families and couples, walk on the deserted sand, far away a small boy runs in and out of the waves, or is that a ghost of me, and a few folk, like me, are eating takeaways on the sand; behind the sounds of fun fair rides and Abba; and above the clouds and sun paint patterns in the sky.

Again I feel that odd sad sense, a bit of nostalgia, a bit that my self-sufficiency in the wilder parts of Wales slips into a sense of being alone in a place made for families, and part the way in which this coming back to the familiar makes concrete the ending of this unique experience.

Day 94 – Port Talbot to Porthcawl

a beach under threat and childhood memories

20th July 2013

miles completed: 1011
miles to go:  47

2013-07-20 13.41.46I start the day at Aberavon and the Best Western Beach Hotel. I have never managed to get the WiFi to work, but they do a good breakfast. The man on the table next door asks about laverbread. The waitress, I think Trixie, is a German lady who has been married to a Welshman for eighteen years and lived in Wales for eight, and so speaks in a curious mixture, where some phrases come out solidly German, some Welsh, but nothing in between. She goes to the kitchen, but there is none. She explains that they used to keep it in regularly, but that few people ate it and so it was always wasted.

From Aberavon, I drive through Port Talbot past the station where I finished the night before, and then am directed up the most unlikely side street to join the M4, which takes me to Porthcawl.

The ‘cawl’ in Porthcawl is Welsh for soup, referring to the appearance of the sea, boiling soup on a stormy night. However, there is no sign of that, nor of foam, when I arrive at the Foam Edge Guest House. I don’t suppose there is much surfing either at Rest Bay, just ten minutes’ walk further along the sea front, although the land in front of the car park is evidently a Gypsy camp now according to Helen, the Foam Edge landlady.

{{Helen} also tells me the way to the bus station. I would have walked back along the sea front and then up the high street, but in fact the main streets of Porthcawl, forced by the sea, form a triangle, and I walk there, through the Porthcawl suburbs, along the third side of the triangle.

I pass a large house with construction work in progress, a lady is peeking through the windows, and we discuss it.

"Maybe it is going to be a bed and breakfast," I suggest.

"No, this area’s too posh for that," she replies, "out of my league."

It is 1930s-semi posh, not Kensington posh, but it would be fascinating to compare house prices here, with similar semis on the main street of Margam, where I will walk later, or in the Gower.

In the gutter I spot half a pair of false teeth and the day suddenly takes on a surreal air, but, down to earth, someone is going to be very unhappy when they realise they are missing.

I have half an hour to wait for the bus and, while I wait in the shade of a tree, Kathy, one of the Save Morfa Beach campaigners, rings me and we arrange where to meet in Margam.

On the bus I learn that today is the day of the Porthcawl carnival, the buses later in the day will be diverted as the procession goes up the high street and ends up at a playing field where a fair has already been set up. I’m sorry to have missed the carnival, if Id realised I could have taken this day as my writing day and walked on Sunday; however, I think that maybe I could visit the fair that evening and eat fair food for tea.

The bus goes inland through various small villages, and then joins the main road through Margam to Port Talbot, where I will be walking in a few hours.

The houses of Margam start off as 1930s semis and I spot the Twelve Knights, where I am to meet Kathy and Nigel. I note where it is as the official Coast Path route passes slightly behind the main street and so I’ll need to make sure I come up on to the main street at the right point.

Margam is a ribbon development, a few streets either side of the main road. The normal reason for ribbon development is the road itself, but here I think it is more that there is only a narrow strip of land between the massive Margam Steel Works and the hills rising behind.

As we travel further west though Margam, towards Port Talbot, the semis give way to Victorian terraces, reminding me that the industry has been here for a long time. South Wales was the powerhouse of industrial development for hundreds of years. The Swansea area was ‘Copperopolis‘, when copper, to line ships’ hulls, was one of the crucial materials, making international trade, conquest and colonisation possible. Later tin and steel production became more crucial for railways and for war.

The terrace looks so familiar with its small bay windows and vestigial front yards.  My own street in Cardiff, Bangor Street, had clearly been slightly superior in Victorian times, as the houses were slightly bigger, but this looked just like all the other streets clustered around Roath Park when I was little, and indeed across much of Wales. There is a very slightly green-grey gritstone that was used as a cladding, which you can find elsewhere in the UK, but is particularly ubiquitous in Wales, even as far north as Harlech. I am sure I heard something about its origins, but can’t recall.

However, there are also local variations, due, I guess, to different architects, and different constraints of sites.  The bus passes an old lady standing outside her house, and through the open door I see a china-covered dresser, almost as if I were looking in on a cottage from centuries back.  As I pass more houses I see that the gap between front door and the start of the bay is slightly larger than I am used to, allowing a wider hallway, wide enough for a dresser.

Although I have been in houses with wide hallways, I don’t recall any Cardiff terraces with halls wide enough for furniture, even those with more substantial houses, like Bangor Street, or the three-storey houses facing the parks of Roath Park. I wonder if this was a whim of the architect, or whether it reflected a local concern of the time. Maybe the people would have preferred a slightly more spacious front room.

Thinking of those front rooms, I recall that we used our front room as a living room, with the settee and television. This may have been because we used the house for half-board guests and so used the back room as a dining room, albeit with small armchairs by the fire as well. However, in many of the houses I visited, especially those of older folk, the front room was reserved for special occasions. Traditionally this would have had the best furniture, the best pictures and ornaments, and be kept spotlessly cleaned, but only used a few times a year for weddings, funerals, or very special guests.

I recall especially Mrs Jefferies‘ house, on one of the smaller terraces, but still, like these Margam houses, one with a vestigial front yard, not one of those opening directly onto the street. Over time, and as lives changed, the front room became slightly less pristine, and filled with her husband’s post-retirement artwork, initially painting-by-numbers, but later his own compositions. However, we never used it for sitting in when we visited, instead going into the tiny back room that housed armchairs as well as the dining table and acted as thoroughfare between hallway and back-kitchen.

Thinking about it, I see the same pattern today when I have visited Nadeem‘s mother’s house in Birmingham, part of the Kashmiri community there. I think the very first time I visited, Nad and I were given a meal in the front room, served by the women of the household, as I was the visiting professor. But later, as I became more familiar, I have always gone straight to the back room.

The driver gave me directions to Bath Street as I got off the bus, and I set off there to visit Margaret, the aunt of my Canadian nieces. I hadn’t worked out the exact relationship before and only talked on the phone when Janet and Sian (two of the nieces) had visited. It turns out Margaret is the sister of Glenda, my half-brother Robert‘s wife; Glenda and Robert both died some years back. Robert was from my Dad‘s first marriage and more than 20 years older than me. Glenda had her first child only a year or so after Mum had Jackie and me, and she and Mum were close friends until the family emigrated to Canada when I was five. I recall being heartbroken at their leaving, which in those days was far more complete separation than today with budget airlines, cheap phone calls and Skype.

Margaret‘s house is another terrace, of the opening onto the street kind, but relatively substantial inside, with an unusual curved corner wall to prevent a sharp corner where the passage goes round the stairs. We go into the back room (of course) and Margaret gives me a mug of tea and a chocolate biscuit and we talk partly about family, and how she can remember seeing me as a small boy (almost certainly four or five years old). She also starts to give me the background on Morfa Beach.  The beach is part of the childhood of everyone from Port Talbot and Margam, in days past.

The plant would have originally been in private hands, until it was nationalised when the steel industry collapsed, I think in the 1960s, then privatised by Thatcher in the 1980s, because she didn’t like any government including her own, and then was taken over by Tata, the Indian steel giant, a few years ago. As a multinational, Tata is seeking to make the most of its assets, and, so it is rumoured, would like this to include open mining the exposed coal seam below the dunes behind the beach. Restricting access to the beach by seeking to close a public footpath is one step towards this.

We could have gone on talking for ages, but I have arranged to meet Kathy and Nigel at 2pm, and not too long after 1pm I leave.

2013-07-20 13.34.15Port Talbot high street on  a Saturday lunchtime is not heaving with shoppers. I pass the Gateway Bookshop, and notice a booklet about the Aberavon 1893 ship disaster, so nip in to add to my piles of books and pamphlets to read. I also nip to walk through the car park behind the high street as there had been a street market, but clearly just a morning market as only a few stalls still open.

Port Talbot high street continues along the main road, which eventually stops being Port Talbot‘s main road and becomes Taibach and then Margam. The Coast Path is signposted along alleyways and lanes behind the main road and I swap back and forth. On one hand the main road gives a sense of progression, the different styles of housing. But the alleyways have their own interest, just as you can see people’s washing hanging colourfully from metal posts with pulley systems, that I recall so well from my own backyard on Bangor Street, in some way it is as if all the dirty laundry of life is exposed in the backyards.

2013-07-20 13.42.46They remind me of the lanes I used to walk with Jackie every day through infant and junior school. In the first years we walked with Mum. I still recall the day I got confused and left school at the afternoon break with a long, long wait by the gates. However, at an age that would seem negligent nowadays, Jackie and I walked together through the lanes that could be dim even at four o’clock on a winter afternoon, across three roads to school, with only a lollypop lady on the very last crossing.

I pass Port Talbot Arts Centre, which does not look very active, the substantial parish church, the memorial gardens and a vast disused chapel that looks perfect for a horror movie film set. I ignore the large painted words ‘snack bar’ with arrows along the walls; is this vestigial signage, or is the snack bar still there serving sausage sarnies? Maybe if I wasn’t late for a meeting …

Then a car pulls up and a lady says, "Alan?".

It is Kathy, she had guessed Margaret and I would have chatted on a bit, so was just taking a quick spin down to Taibach where she had been brought up: "a trip down memory lane," she says.

Into Margam I pass a motorcycle shop, with toddlers’ push bikes in one side of the window, the Catholic church, houses with wonderfully Italianate porches, the police speed camera van and two extremely battered four-by-fours. As I photograph an interesting patch of wall (well it had little ferns growing out of it), a man sees my backpack and asks about the walk. I tell him that I’m about to meet the Save Morfa Beach people.

"I used to be in that," he said, "but it was all talk and no action."

I will learn more later, but I guess the slow grinding process of public enquiries must be frustrating. However, he does care about it as he tells me about how he used to go down when he was little, and how much it is part of his life.

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He also tells me about another local issue that I had heard mentioned before, pollution from Tata. As a child I recall the stench passing Port Talbot.  Nowadays the sulphur and other smells have been greatly reduced, but since Tata have taken over, the residents feel that sooty emissions have grown. He points out an air monitor across the road. It is a nondescript grey metal box and I would have passed it by without noticing.

The man points to his dog’s off-white feet.

"I wash them every day and within a few hours they are grey," he tells me.

I take a photograph of a small dog’s paws as evidence.

2013-07-20 14.18.55A few minutes later I spot the sign of the Twelve Knights and below it Kathy and Nigel waiting, their boots pushed forward as if to take a large step as I photograph them, the pub sign above and steelworks in the background.

Nigel suggests a Welsh liquid lunch and I do not disagree, so we sit a while in the Twelve Knights as they tell me about the history of the campaign to save the beach. Evidently Tata can be heavy handed with employees as well as the local community, but are a large local employer, well really the local employer, so have a lot of leverage with the council and government.

The footpath in question cuts for a mile directly from the main road to the beach, and is not only an official public right of way, but is also well used, and has been for generations, as I’ve already found, a part of the childhood and adult memory of every one I speak to.

However, it is not just the footpath itself, but Tata would like all access to the beach below the plant to be restricted. Indeed, the Tata security patrols often intercept people walking down the path, and have been known to ‘bring people in’, which is strictly kidnap, but evidently many of the security guards are not licensed and do not wear name badges, and so are either not aware or don’t care about the niceties of the law.

At a time when the Wales Coast Path is being promoted as the USP of Welsh tourism, it seems unbelievable that shutting off two miles of beach could even be considered. Yet, due I guess to Tata‘s economic leverage, it is. There is a public enquiry soon. Of course Tata‘s legal muscle will far exceed that of the campaign group and, for that matter the council, so the unbelievable may not be impossible, and yet I hope sense will prevail.

After a while Kathy goes to pick up her husband Rob, who has been walking that morning, and he joins us for a while. It turns out that Rob worked for CCW until two years ago, and was responsible for implementing the Wales Coast Path.  Now he works for a charity to promote the coast, from what I can gather, enjoying working wholeheartedly for the good of walkers, community and local business, outside the politics of government.

While we are talking one of the bar staff, Amber, approaches. When we’d first come in the lad behind the bar had heard us talking or seen the bag and I’d given him a leaflet. Amber asked if she could take a few more. It turned out her mother used to be a director of Tenovus and is now a director of a charity in Merthyr Tydfil promoting literature and poetry.

Nigel has to leave to pick up his daughter, so Kathy, Rob and I set off to follow the path down to the sea.

2013-07-20 15.22.56However, first of all I need a little non-liquid lunch to eat along the way and so pop into Tambini’s Express Café. I choose a pie, from a local butcher, which the proprietor, I assume Mr Tambini, does not let me pay for when he learns about the walk. As I wait for it to warm I see a yoke hung on the wall, which looks unusual; I ask if it is an ox yoke.

"Yes," he says, "it was my grandfather’s, he brought it with him from Italy".

Many Italian ex-POWs stayed in Wales after the war, but Tambini‘s grandfather came over far earlier than that, maybe simply for economic reasons, or maybe after the rise of Mussolini.

As I start to eat my pie, we pass a church. It is evidently from a small village that was flattened during the building of the M4, but the church was preserved and taken brick by brick and reconstructed here.

A short way further is a roundabout, and the Wales Coast Path is signposted towards the sea, initially following the same route as the disputed footpath. We cross the railway. I have crossed railways many times during the walk, and have got used to the ‘stop look, listen’ signs on unmanned and ungated crossings, but then realise that this is the main line, with high speed trains.

2013-07-20 16.10.01One of the arguments that Tata raise for the abolition of the footpath is safety. However, this crossing, the dangerous part, would not be shut off and indeed is part of the Wales Coast Path. As I have seen, the WCP route is extremely risk averse, keeping off even minor roads whenever possible. Back at the Twelve Knights, Nigel told me that there have never been any serious accidents at this crossing in all the years that people have walked it and, in the past, even driven cars down the path to the beach.

Just after the rail crossing, the Wales Coast Path route turns left to skirt around the back of an area used by Tata for industrial landfill, and Nigel leaves us to follow this as his car is in that direction from his previous walk.   Kathy and I continue to the beach.

Just before the beach the path goes round a small building, which was built directly in its line. Evidently Tata did obtain permission to divert the path around it, but this may have been retrospective. Given there are large tracts of land either side of the path, the site seems a little perverse to say the least.

The beach stretches for two miles to the north-west below the plant and for another mile, the route I will follow, to the south-east until it meets the SSI of Kenfig Burrows.

At this point Kathy tells me more stories and reminiscences about the path, but then has to turn back herself, leaving me to walk the coast.

2013-07-20 16.43.06For the first few hundred yards south-east of the footpath, Morfa beach is backed by sea defences, huge boulders placed there in British Steel time, to protect the land behind, but beyond that there is just dune and sand.

Again, I cannot believe that closing three miles of long sandy beach is even considered.

2013-07-20 16.45.41The sand high on the beach is very dry, only the very highest storm tides sweep right up the beach, but I guess to run the Coast Path along here would have needed permission from Tata for a path just above the sea defences and high water mark, which of course they wouldn’t have given. However, in other places there are high and low water routes, so I wonder if the local council, who are responsible for the Coast Path in the area, simply positioned it to avoid conflict.

The previous day, on Aberavon beach, I had seen my first washed up cuttlefish bone. I had seen them before, but never actually found one in the sand. On Morfa beach it is almost as if a cuttlefish fish bone boat had been lost at sea spilling its cargo along the waterline.

2013-07-20 16.55.12At the river between Morfa Beach and Kenfig, a family are camped on the beach, mother and father, or maybe grandparents, simply taking in sun and a boy in a makeshift tent of driftwood and flotsam covered in towels. On the river itself a lone swan swims downstream and out to sea; I have never seen a swan at sea before.

I could wade the small river where spreads not the sea, even now at high tide, but instead head along the riverside, to find where the official Coast Path route meets the river and crosses it at the newly made footbridge.

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Going upriver I catch glimpses of the large area of churned sand where there is industrial landfill from the plant, but then see this much more clearly as I meet the Coast Path as it has been taking its scenic route skirting the landfill on its north-eastern edge.

Once over the bridge, the path follows behind the dunes along a well-used track.  However, I cut across the dunes to the sea from where you can walk virtually the whole way to Porthcawl on the beach.

2013-07-20 17.42.26I see my first nudists, or maybe just skinny dippers, of the trip, despite walking at least two nudist beaches that I know of. They are two men, in their 60s, one, facing me, had been putting on shorts as I approached, the other, with his back to me, stood bare cheeked.

A bit further on, (far enough not to be in clear sight!) two teenage girls are manhandling vast inflated rings in dayglo colours. The beach here is backed by the dunes of Kenfig Burrows, but then, before the sand, shelves of storm-tossed stones. It is this pebble assault course that they are negotiating, but by the time I get to them they are sitting on the edge of the pebbles. I wonder if the rings are for swimming or as seats if the stones get too uncomfortable. They say that they are for swimming later, and I am tempted to warn them of dangers of currents, offshore wind, etc., but realise that out here, they must be locals and well used to the sea. However, as I write I also realise it is the kind of thing my Dad would have said.

As the steelworks recedes behind me the first signs of Rest Bay, the western end of Porthcawl, appear, a scatter of houses, the large building, ‘The Rest‘, that I thought was the golf club house, and before that a low rocky headland.

2013-07-20 17.55.07Gradually they become closer and as I get to the beach close to the headland, Sker Beach, more people appear, sunbathing, splashing in the water and, some, positioned at a distance from the splashers, with rods on the sand, lines cast out to sea.

The path then runs across flat grassy headland, with the Royal Porthcawl Golf Course in the dunes behind. I see yellow painted Sker House and its sister ruinous house nearby and ‘The Rest‘ about a mile away ahead. I chat to an angler who tells me Sker Beach is his favourite place for fishing, but he hadn’t been lucky this day. He also tells me about Rob Bowen who runs kenfig.org, a local history site. I double check the name as it was Rob Owen who I had been with earlier in the day, but clearly different people.

As I get closer to Rest Bay, the path becomes more constructed, with decking to prevent erosion on a sandy part and tarmaced closer still, until eventually I come to it, scene of so many childhood memories, except it is so much smaller than I recall. I think this is partly because the tide is in, so that its boundaries are set by the rocky outcrops below the golf club house, a substantial wooden structure, but not the vast edifice of The Rest. However, while I have visited Rest Bay once or twice since, my main memories will be as a small child. I recall, when cycling the coast to coast with Miriam, when we passed a familiar place from her childhood, her main remark was how small it was now.

2013-07-20 18.51.01Rest Bay is all waves and rock pools and on the far flung edge of Porthcawl. There was always a large grassy car park behind the beach, and we would park and often picnic near the car where Dad would bring out a little Gaz stove with a tin box that acted as windbreak, and brew tea to go with chicken drumsticks and bananas (both treats). If the day was not as warm or dry as expected, there was a plank that fitted on brackets he had made either side of the back seat so that Jackie and I would sit with our own private table at the back of the car, while Dad and Mum ate in the front.

I recall one day, on the other side of the channel, I guess having visited Burnham, when Dad suddenly remembered he hadn’t put the plank away. He had taken it out, popped it temporarily on the top of the car, and then driven off.  Presumably somewhere along the way it had flown off onto the road. He had been wondering why people had been flashing their headlights at him. The Gaz stove went a similar way, we had been having a picnic on the way back from a holiday in St Ives, and he had made tea as usual; it was only at the next tea stop he realised that the stove had been left at the previous car park.

The final part of the Coast Path leads into Porthcawl proper along the cycle route beside the road to the prom. However, there are multiple sandy paths along the grass-covered limestone heath and rocky sea edge. For once, I was not in a hurry, so took the most meandering route to Foam Edge and then on into town where I had an Indian meal (the only thing open for food). On the way into town I passed four young tourists taking photographs, jumping up with arms outstretched, then on the way back, somewhat darker, at the same spot, the same group, doing similar hands stretched photos. I asked if they had been there all along. They were foreign, maybe even Latin American, so it took a while to communicate, but when they understood I left them laughing loudly at the idea.

Day 93 – Swansea to Port Talbot

surprised by nature behind the busy streets and Stallone on the waterside, faint childhood memories and grand hotels

19th July 2013

miles completed: 1002
miles to go:  56

2013-07-19 09.16.41I get going early, but final moving on preparations always take a little longer than I plan: emptying the toilet, throwing out the rubbish, turning off electricity and gas, driving off and retrieving the levelling blocks, and generally putting things places they won’t fly off the first time the van turns a corner.

I had planned to be waiting outside the Three Cliffs Café at West Cliff at the stroke of nine, but it was in fact half past, not too badly delayed, when I got there, parked in the National Trust car park and went in for another breakfast.

I thought I’d asked for no cockle and laverbread parcels, but when the plate came they were there. The waitress helpfully got me a second plate, and I resolved to eat them first. The waitress suggested eating them with tomato ketchup. "That’s how I first learnt to eat them," she said.

I did one better and ate them with the cooked tomato, which is never my favourite item anyway, and I only say yes to as I know they are good for me. I was expecting some intense sea-food flavour, but in fact it was much more subtle, although not something I could eat quickly, especially with a fork in one hand and  a computer in the other.

When I had been in the other day, the waiter had said that they had WiFi, and that it was fast. He had been true to his word: in all my journeys, I have never seen Flickr suck up photos so quickly. I was probably there an hour and half in the end, slowly eating my breakfast whilst uploading photos and blog entries, and in that time all my backlog of seven or eight days photos had been uploaded.

And so on, to Aberavon and the Best Western Beach Hotel, which appears to be the only beach-front accommodation. The TripAdvisor reports were almost all very positive, but all said, "better on the inside than it looked from the outside." The outside is a motley collection of rectangular 1970s yellow brick, lumps stuck together, with even the sign somewhat apologetically placed at a far corner of the property as if it were too ashamed to be placed closer.

Men in suits, women of sizeable proportions, in bright coloured dresses of various lengths and cuts, and a small girl in a long white lacy bridesmaid dress, rendered the signs saying ‘wedding breakfast’ almost redundant. The reception was also to be held in the hotel, and a sign warned that there may be some delays in service later due to a major function.

In fact, when I did get food there later, I noticed no delay, maybe because they had moved from eating to party mode by then. In general, the TripAdvisor reports are absolutely right, everyone in the hotel was very friendly and the service and food were good.

2013-07-19 12.57.03I asked about buses to Swansea and was directed down the road to the Labour club, or to give it it’s full name ‘Seaside Social & Labour Club‘. The receptionist described it as a "big grey building", and I had imagined concrete, like a miniature version of the Swansea Civic Centre, but instead it is clad with grey coloured, sheet metal section that I would expect to see on the roof of an industrial warehouse. In a different location I would imagine it was a converted commercial building, but here, in the middle of a residential area, it must have been purpose built; I assume it was just the cheapest material at the time, or maybe even some sort of modernist cachet.

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Going back from the seafront towards the Labour club one is instantly in the land of budget supermarkets and council house estates, built to house the steel workers in the 1960s and 1970s. I’d guess many are privately owned nowadays.

The bus goes into the heart of Swansea, but has a stop virtually beside the Waterfront Premier Inn and its bar where I had stopped on Tuesday. Hot and sticky from the bus ride, I stop in the shade of the bar long enough to drink a half pint and iced water, and set off; it’s already 2:30 by this time.

2013-07-19 14.50.16From the map, I was expecting a long walk through back streets and along the side of the main road, and indeed it started that way, before turning slightly away from the road (not well signed) past the park-and-ride car park (day parking only, otherwise it would have been a good place for walking from) and port area, with a McDonald’s and Ibis visible through the trees, then over the main road on a new (millennium?) footbridge, and then a few hundred yards of back streets, before setting off along a footpath that I assume may have once been some sort of small industrial roadway.

The vegetation is initially that wildlife rich scrubland, typical of mature waste ground, maybe cleared industrial ground or simply in-between.

There is the tree-muffled sound of traffic and the occasional faint, sweet yet acrid odour from the landfill, though the latter I would probably not have recognised if not for the large sign before I entered the path. But apart from these you could be anywhere deep in the countryside, and as the path progressed, moved further north from the road and no longer downwind of the landfill, even these faint traces disappear; so at first you are wandering through a woodland path, and then past wetlands, and then on an old canal-side path, but all on wide, well-made-up tarmac or gravel cycle paths. The occasional bicycle does pass me, but no other walkers.

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At one point the canal is covered by a wide concrete structure, more like a 1970s veranda than a bridge, with only metal steps on the far side of the canal, and on my side, no access, simply continuing to my right until it joins a bank, and I assume continues as a wide concrete road on the higher ground beyond. Maybe this was some sort of loading/unloading point for the canal. A few pieces of broken brickwork litter the ground, I assume part of a long collapsed wall, but if so most of it has long since gone. On one piece, the size of a small table, is a blackened, fire-burnt patch as if it were an altar to the god of lost places.

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Soon after this the path does join the road, first a minor road for a mile, past a hotel called ‘The Towers‘ with a red brick windowed tower in its grounds. Without the windows I would have thought it a Victorian water tower, but as it is, maybe simply a folly.

2013-07-19 15.49.47At the end of this road is a large roundabout and you follow the footpath along the main A48. Almost instantly there is a road sign telling the cars that the turnoff for the M4 is in 1/2 mile, and I know the bridge I will cross is only a  little further, but it is a long half mile and then perhaps another half mile beyond that to the bridge itself.

Before getting to the turnoff there is a layby and in it a solar powered rubbish bin. Yes, really. The power of ‘BigBelly Solar‘ is used to compact the rubbish, a perfect use of solar power, heavily geared (whether physical or electronic I don’t know) to generate high pressure but very slowly, meaning the bin does not have to be emptied as often, saving energy in driving a van to collect it. But I guess there is an alternative narrative, of technology replacing the labour of the bin-men.

2013-07-19 16.12.33As the M4 turn-off approaches, there are the usual countdown signs, but for some reason just ‘III’ and ‘I’, the two-hundred-yard sign is missing. Just before I would need to cross the slip lane there is an underpass taking me to the other side of the road with spectacular views of the underside of the flyovers leading to the motorway bridge, a forest of concrete trunks, and a sign to the 6th and 14th Tee of a golf course that is divided by the A48.

Passing under the motorway bridge is wonderful, a few moments’ shade from the sun.

2013-07-19 16.22.01The A48 bridge is not in the same league as the Severn Bridge, but does give views over the River Neath both upstream towards the hills of the Neath Valley and downstream past industrial buildings, power station, recycling centre and the old, disused docks. The docks were evidently another creation of Brunel and included a ‘floating lock’ with an unusual hydraulic mechanism that you pass further towards the sea. There are attempts to preserve and restore this unique piece of industrial heritage.

The turn-off to go along the river is at a roundabout, where there is a choice, either to go along the river to the sea and Aberavon prom, or a ‘high level route’ that bypasses Aberavon and Port Talbot. The latter is the ‘scenic’ route, but I have found that I learn more as the Coast Path travels close to people, with all the industrial and residential messiness that this brings with it. The signposting at the roundabout shows both routes, but is very confusing; I am glad of the map, as I turn past the industrial area towards the river bank.

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I pass a Stallone-like figure, bare torso and chest like steel plates, with a dark dog, like an Alsatian, but more snub-nosed. As I go on the dog follows me and comes round. I offer it the backs of my fist-clenched hands to smell. I should note that the fists are there not to hit the dog, but because you don’t want to offer fingers anywhere near the teeth of a dog you don’t know. I talk to him and his eyes look inquisitive and friendly. The man vainly calls the dog back, and eventually it responds. He explains that it is an Alsatian/Rottweiler cross and some people find it frightening, but it is really very gentle. This was clear, although maybe the fear is not totally misplaced, as it turns out it is also a guard dog, and is a very different creature if an intruder tries to come into its guarded territory after dark.

2013-07-19 17.15.51I keep getting ahead a bit, and then stop to take a photograph, and the dog follows me again, so eventually it seems easier to keep pace with them and chat.

Every so often the man stretches one side of his square jawed head, just like that gesture fighters make in films when they have taken a punch and are about to hit back, and again just like a mannerism I am sure I have seen Stallone use in films … does Stallone have a brother?

He also has two Japanese dogs, I forget the breed, but of a kind that are more frightening than an Alsatian/Rottweiler cross. They have been left behind at the site where he is working. He is taking the chance to walk the dog as from Friday when people leave work until they arrive back on Monday morning he is alone on the site and cannot leave.

2013-07-19 17.34.09I assume you need to be a little tough to do this sort of work, but I didn’t know how tough. He said he had been firebombed and had dangerous dogs thrown over the fence into the compound with him, in an attempt to drive away security and leave the area unprotected. And yet, he also said that the reason he had taken this job was that he had been in corporate sales and was looking for something less stressful.

2013-07-19 17.35.02After a while he turns round to go back, and I realise that in walking along the riverside with him, I’d missed the place where I have to turn off to go closer to the power station and skirt the marshes. My guess is that I could have continued along the nicely laid out River Path, and made my way round the point at the end onto the beach, but I wasn’t sure, so I backtracked and followed the Coast Path directions, past the power point, under the long runs of pipes to and from the river that had ‘Live Water’ written on them. It sounds like some Marvel comics character, or maybe a horror film, where the very water rises up into animate shapes.

As the path heads towards the sea, there is an empty area to the left that is heavily fenced, including a barbed wire roll on the inside. At first it almost seems as if they are trying to keep something in, but I guess this is just to discourage people from climbing over and jumping down. I spot a place further on where one of the top strands of barbed wire on top of the fence has been cut, so the security here, just like the site Stallone is protecting, is clearly very necessary.

2013-07-19 17.47.06After this the path reaches the sand, which is thick with broken shells that prick if they find their way under my toes. I am glad that I am not barefoot, the exposed sand has absorbed the full day’s sun, so that, even with sandals on, the soft dry sand splashes over my bare toes, like covering a jacket potato with fire embers. But it was just one storm-blown dune, and then dropped into the wide beach beyond.

The beach stretches, dune backed and virtually deserted, for about two miles and then there is another mile of promenade before the breakwater of Port Talbot docks.  However, there’s a slight curve, near the mouth of the Neath, so the first views are simply endless sea and sky ahead with Swansea and the Gower stretched out behind.

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After a while the three huge cranes of Port Talbot dock appear, and also the smaller cranes working on improvements to the Avon Lido.

I had expected Aberavon to feel like one of those run-down seaside resorts that I had seen on the north coast. However, there has been a regeneration project. Brand new white railings line the promenade and there are new playgrounds and soft red brick ice cream shops, as well as sunken gardens and more substantial entertainment buildings.

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However, the Beach Hotel, where I am staying, appears to be the only accommodation on the sea front. Behind the promenade there is a sea of council housing, none of the Georgian spa or Victorian railway destination villas that characterise so many seaside towns. This has always been a day trip resort, for the steel workers and maybe Neath Valley miners, and I guess was maybe simply open dunes until the estates were built in the 1960s or 1970s.

2013-07-19 18.41.02I recall once or maybe twice going as a child to Aberavon, past the sulphurous towers of Port Talbot, but I recall nothing of the beach itself. When I see signs for Aberavon Lido, the ‘Lido’ is familiar, so maybe it was here that we went, I am guessing a vast paddling pool with seating beside. I also recall that we asked to go back, but rarely, if ever returned.

Maybe the lack of 19th century seaside boarding houses has been a blessing, otherwise Aberavon could have become the B&B overspill for ‘problem families’ from Swansea and Cardiff as Rhyl has become for Liverpool.

2013-07-19 18.50.43I pass the Beach Hotel and am wondering whether to stop there, my original plan, or to push on to Port Talbot station, which I assume will be easiest to come back to from Porthcawl the next day. I am about to go in to have a quick break, but then realise that if I do so I will definitely not go further, so press on along the rest of the seafront.

Towards the river and breakwater there is seafront residential development. In some ways similar to Llanelli‘s coast park ‘executive’ estates, or Swansea‘s marina-side quarter, but under the shadow of Tata‘s smoking stacks, this will never be a gentrified area; instead these seem to be family homes, with stair gates over open front doors, and front garden barbecues, very un-middle class.

2013-07-19 19.04.40In front of the new housing is a smaller beach, between the breakwater and the river, with just a gravel bar separating the dredged river mouth and harbour entrance from the beach.

The Coast Path follows the riverbank upstream, past the harbour mouth with old wooden structures that I assume were once wharfs, naked in the stream. In fact I am unsure whether the old docks are active at all, as the steelworks cranes are on a pontoon in a new harbour between larger breakwaters south of the river.

2013-07-19 19.11.51In the low-tide mud of the river bank are brightly coloured fishing boats, and one that is clearly no longer watertight and has taken on the green and grey of the mud, camouflaged against the wooden wharf side.

Stepping over a desiccated rat on the path and passing a wooden weir I come to a lovely old bridge, red rusted and perforated, almost lace-like, in places. A stone declares that it was erected by the Aberavon Corporation in 1903 and would once have been busy with traffic, but now is a quiet footbridge with views downstream to the old dockyard lock and upstream to the hills beside the Afan Valley.

I guess in crossing the bridge I move from Aberavon to Port Talbot.

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Slightly further upstream, walking along the southern bank of the Afan, there is a roundabout crossed by a footbridge, and then a further walk along the river bank past a concrete weir with a high-level canal-like channel, which I guess fills the docks, and maybe did act as a canal for barges going upriver into the town.

While not as rural feeling as the path between Swansea and the Neath bridges, still the lush vegetation, wild flowers and water give this in-between place a touch of magic.

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An underpass takes the path into a lane running behind the railway line. On the right a taxi is dropping someone at a fitness club, and if I were closer I would probably get a number, as it is getting late now and I am suddenly tired, not to mention hungry, so hoping I don’t have to walk back to Aberavon beach, albeit, when I check afterwards on the map, little more than a mile away. As I get to the far side of Port Talbot station, a train pulls up, and I hurry along as I expect that taxis may come to meet the train. The railway staff club is on this side of the tracks, but I have to cross on a level crossing just beyond the station and come back to it from the far side.

2013-07-19 19.49.38A taxi is just leaving and when I ask tells me that more will come soon, so I join a short queue, and can start to contemplate Port Talbot itself, a town I have driven past many times, and I guess as a child I will have driven through in the days before the M4, but certainly never before, to my memory, stopped at.   It is certainly down at heel, but in a well-used way, not the sense of dangerousness of Connah’s Quay in the North. I guess here the steelworks are still a big employer, so this is still a live industrial town, not prosperous, but surviving. It is no wonder that Tata have a strong hold on the local council.

2013-07-20 13.37.07Opposite the station is the Grand Hotel. I can’t help myself hearing Greta Garbo‘s voice, "I want to be alone", in the 1932 film Grand Hotel.  This Grand Hotel was never as grand as the one in Berlin, but clearly would have had its day when South Wales was the heart of world commerce.

Back at the Aberavon Best Western Beach Hotel, it is clearly no Grand Hotel, and I can hear the wedding party in full swing. I was going to pop round the corner for fish and chips and maybe sneak them in my rucksack in case they didn’t like you to bring takeaways into the hotel. However, I look at the bar menu and the fish and chips are hardly more than takeaway prices, so I order there to take back to my room and lazily watch television while I upload from my camera and attempt, but fail, to use the WiFi during the breaks. Here the WiFi has a strong signal, and gives me an IP address, but never gets fully through to the internet. I could ring and ask them to fix it, probably a router needs rebooting somewhere, but I will be in Swansea University on Monday, so it doesn’t seem worth it, and instead I fitfully fall asleep as the day’s heat very slowly subsides and the sound of revelry continues late into the night.